Scrapbook Assignment 2

Emergence from the shadows: First Peoples’ Photographic Perspectives

Scrap Book Assignment #2

This photographic collection (curated by Jeffery M. Thomas who was featured in the film Shooting Indians by A. Kazimi) appeared at the Museum of Civilization from October 1999 to January 2002, while I was living in Ottawa and I remember actually visiting this exhibition in person, as I was a younger Journalism student based out of Loyalist College in Belleville Ontario.

As photography was a key component of that program—and a subject that had interested me, I would routinely visit exhibits in both Ottawa and Toronto and discuss my work with other photographers. This was especially true of the work of Aboriginal First Nations photographers, as I had recently re-discovered my own Native ancestry and I am now recognized by Indian Affairs Canada, and my First Nation, as a card-carrying member of Chippewas of Nawash First Nation located near Owen Sound/Cape Croker Ontario.

Sadly the online exhibit for this collection is rather lacking compared to other online displays available on the Museum of Civilization site. Presented online at: http://www.civilization.ca/cmc/exhibitions/aborig/jaillir/jailline.shtml the descriptive write up glosses over the popular culture depictions of First Peoples’: “in creating and ingraining stereotypical images of the North American Indian.”

This is followed, with an appropriate for this Visual Anthropology course; Anthropological perspective which, “examines the work of four anthropologists who studied First Peoples for the Geological Survey of Canada, now the Canadian Museum of Civilization, during the early twentieth century.”

This collection was culled from thousands of fieldwork portraits and as the Museum of Civilization asserts, and of which I agree these images serve to demonstrate, “the control First Peoples often exerted over the photographic process, these images bear witness to the sitters’ vanishing world — left as a gift to future generations.”

As we have examined in watching films on Edward Curtis and the A. Kazimi Shooting Indians film, it is well known that “historically, popular photographic interest in First Peoples’ culture focused on the sublime ‘Indian warrior’ — a free-roaming, pre-reserve figure.”

The second facet of the exhibition focuses on the work of six contemporary First Nations artists, Mary Anne Barkhouse, Rosalie Favell, Greg Hill, Shelley Niro and Greg Staats.

These artists collectively present a new and critical response to a history that had included the faces of First Peoples, but not necessarily their voices. “Rather than perpetuating imagery from the past, they address complex contemporary social issues through their creation of photographic works of art.”

The online exhibition takes a compare and contrast approach, and approaches a contemporary Aboriginal Artist’s work side by side with a historical image, so Barry Ace presents a photograph of a wire, feathers, wood and Plexiglas model of Nanabush—against a photograph by anthropologist F. W. Waugh depicting “Mrs. Gadteher (Saulteaux” taken in 1916 in Long Lake Ontario.

And Mary Anne Barkhouse’s Wolves In The City series, taken in Dryden Ontario in 1998, is presented against a photograph of an unidentified Stick Indian, taken in 1922 near Bella Coola British Columbia by anthropologist Harlan Ingersoll Smith.

And the work continues with each photographer in the series in this theme of photographer versus anthropologist.

As a photographic medium, the online visual medium of display is appropriate for this collection, but it could be presented a little better online, as currently you have to click on the main page and then click on each individual First Nations Photographer—there is no easy way to jump from one artists work to the next, so many people might only see a single Anthropologist versus Artist comparison, where the work succeeds best when viewed as one collective photographic essay.

Thinking back almost 11 years when I viewed this exhibit in person is difficult, so I will not attempt to discuss how the exhibit might have been presented—but I think that seeing these images on a wall as a series of framed prints larger than 8×10 inches would be much better than viewing these images as web graphics files on a computer screen.

It is easy to make some comparisons with an ethnographic examination (words and pictures/film) of the same subject, as this collection was curated by Jeffery M. Thomas whose work was featured in the A. Kazimi film Shooting Indians, which shows some of the challenges that First Nations artists have experienced, especially in coming to grip with their own visual history catalogue of images taken by ethnographers.

The work of Jeffery Thomas and the work of the photographers featured in this collection show a very much tongue-in-cheek First Nations flavour of humor-as-healing, and of poking fun of past stereotypical images, and presenting a sense of Native Identity and Native Pride. Despite everything, we are still here, even if a lot of us don’t necessarily “look the part” of what a First Nations person is “supposed to look like” as Drew Hayden Taylor, another 62 Status Indian (like myself) famously (and hilariously) poked fun of stating: “I plan to start my own nation. Because I am half Ojibway half Caucasian, we will be called the occasions. And of course, since I’m founding the new nation, I will be a special occasion.”

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