Category Archives: review

Mana Contemporary

I went to Jersey City specifically to see the Han Youngsoo exhibit. But since ICP at Mana is part of Mana Contemporary, I figured I should budget enough time to see everything else which Mana had to offer. I’m glad I did.

Mana isn’t a museum per se. It’s an art center which offers everything from studio space to storage to crating service. The only way to see it is via a guided tour which takes you through the old tobacco factory, its industrial freight elevators, and other machinery remnants.

Most of the art in display is the collection of the Ayn Foundation. Very much like Pier 24 and the Pilara Foundation, Mana’s exhibitions are a way of taking art which would normally be hidden in storage and putting it on some level of public view. Ayn and Pilara are actually very similar in how their collections are extensive and show complete sets of a series rather than a single piece. It’s fantastic to be able to see how an artist worked through a concept and the more collections and installations I see which do this kind of thing the more annoyed and distrustful I am of exhibitions which feature a single piece without context.

The bad side of the similarities—aside from having hours which make it nigh-impossible for anyone who works a real job to be able visit—is how there’s a similar lack of context and explanation both in the scholarly content of the shows and in the reason why the collector purchased the pieces. As a viewer I have to bring a lot of my own knowledge to the exhibitions and make my own connections. This can be wonderful and freeing but I really do like to learn about why things are being displayed the way they are.

The tour though is good. Because of the nature of the space I suspect that it’ll always be a small group (just me and one other person plus our guide) and as such it’s not a docent “let me describe this” kind of tour but instead a “let’s check out this space and I’ll give you a brief intro and feel free to ask me any questions as you take as much time as you want” thing. There’s still a bit of external pressure to keep things moving so, while I did get to check out Han Youngsoo on the tour, I went back later* to go through a second time at my own pace.

*ICP has independent hours from the rest of Mana and does not require a tour.

Arnulf Rainer

Arnulf Rainer, Helles Morgenkreuz (Bright Morning Cross), 1987.

Arnulf Rainer, Helles Morgenkreuz (Bright Morning Cross), 1987.

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The Arnulf Rainer pieces are either vibrantly-overpainted religious images or cross-shaped canvases with similar painting. My tour guide insisted that Rainer didn’t see them as inherently religious but I’m not sure I completely buy it.  They are a lot fun but the real draw is the room. It’s a huge space which, based on the overhead crane, used to be for loading and unloading. Now, with the white gallery walls and high ceiling, it feels like a chapel.

Aside from the lack of light, the pieces work perfectly in the space. Yes, they’re religiousish but here they also suggest how the language of religion works architecturally to suggest that we should be pensive and quiet and respectful.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol, Sunset, 1972

Andy Warhol, Sunset, 1972

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The Warhol room was a ton of silkscreen prints—many of which are the iconic ones of Marilyn Monroe, Mao, and the Flowers. It was wonderful to see so many prints from the same series together. All too often there’s only one or two; here there are like nine or ten.

As a print geek I loved being able to closely study how he changed things between editions. It’s not just playing with color. Sometimes a screen will be double struck. Other times a screen is omitted. Othertimes it’s flipped or rotated. Seeing the different combinations is a joy and reminded me of what Vlisco was doing. I wish that I knew the order in which they were printed because it would be awesome to learn how Warhol progressed through color and screen variations.

This exhibition also included a number of Warhol prints which I’d never seen before. His darker material—not just the skulls but the Sing Sing electric chair—was particularly striking. And his most-recent prints of the sunsets as well as his abstract diamond dust shadow prints were also unlike any other Warhol’s I’d seen. The diamond dust ones in particular play with texture in a way that expanded my understanding of silkscreening. Many of the prints include solid color sections which consist of three or four different hits of the same color of ink. Not all the hits use the same screen though and the different thicknesses of ink create a textures surface to the print.

John Chamberlain

John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1989-2002, from the Widelux series

John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1989-2002, from the Widelux series

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I’m familiar with John Chamberlain’s sculptures of twisted metal. I had no idea about his photography. He’s a Widelux junkie* and his photos are just a ton of fun. A lot of them are playing with the distortion capabilities of the swing lens. While this is the kind of thing which could easily become a trite gimmick, in Chamberlain’s hands the resulting images look a lot like his sculptures.

*The most famous of which may be Jeff Bridges. God damn do I want a book of his photos.

His series of vertical selfies meanwhile is goofy and a good reminder that panoramas don’t have to be horizontal. They suggest a more casual project and are a nice reminder that not everything an artist works on has to be high-concept.

The worst part of this room is that now I want a Widelux—or at least a Horizon—more than ever.

Surface

Matthias Brown, Falling Faces, 2017.

Matthias Brown, Falling Faces, 2017.

In the basement of the Mana building are a ton of artist studios as well as a number of artist residencies. The result is a casual art/work space with a number of improvised exhibition spaces. Surface was one such exhibition and consisted of taking GIF artists and giving them the opportunity to create animations for a gallery setting.

The results are interesting—some hits and, as you have to expect with contemporary art, some misses—but the whole show is quite charming. These are artists who typically do not make physical things and so seeing their first forays into a physical, interactive space reminded me of being in school and experiencing the joy of making your first physical art object.

I particularly liked creating a whirlpool with a spinning stir magnet instead of screwing around with pumps and plumbing. I also enjoyed how Matthias Brown’s piece involved projected animation interacting with static images which he’d painted on the screen itself.

Mana BSMT

Apostrophe NYC

Apostrophe NYC

Another residency/exhibition is Apostrophe NYC* in the Mana BSMT. This is a dozen or so artists working together, making their own art, but also sharing a space and bouncing ideas off of each other. While their art is neat, I most-enjoyed poking my head into their studio spaces, seeing how they create things, and what kinds of random stuff they have up on their own walls.

*Who got a bit of press last year for their guerrilla Whitney show.

It’s been a long time—too long—since I’ve been in a space like this* and I’m glad I had the opportunity to take the tour. I’ll definitely be looking forward to future ICP shows as an excuse to head back to Mana. And who knows, maybe Mana will put a show together which could drag me out there as well.

*The Product Design loft at Stanford was a similar space—as was the machine shop where we all made our projects.

Han Youngsoo

Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.
Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.
Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.
Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.

I saw tweets about ICP’s Han Youngsoo show at Mana Contemporary and the photos looked good enough to pique my interest. So I made my way up to Jersey City just to visit ICP and had my fingers crossed that the show would be worth the trip.

It totally was.

It’s not a huge show but what’s on display are examples of how fantastic good street photography can be.* The photos are strongly composed and beautifully seen. The prints blow away all the digital images on the web. Most of the images are strong on their own accord but, when seen as a collective they have a distinct point of view and narrative.

*I have a mixed relationship with street photography. On the web it’s become a bit of a bad brand where—typically—men have chosen to emulate the alpha-male “I have a right to photograph anything in public” mentality and much of what’s presented is a reflection of the photographer’s “daring.” At the same time, street photos are one of the hardest things to do well because of the ever-changing unexpected dynamic on the street and I can’t help but admire people’s ability to get wonderful spontaneous images and capture strangers in what appear to be completely-honest expressive portraits.

They’re beautiful and clever. I love the way that the overhead street car wires end up looking like birds. I love the way the men in the shadows inside the butcher shop mirror the expressions on the pig heads outside. I love the perfect timing in capturing gestures and posture as people walk down the street or gaze at shop windows. I love the textures in the snow that the footprints on the frozen river leave.*

*I couldn’t help but think of Max Desfor’s Pulitzer-winning photo here though.

I love how beautiful Seoul ends up looking despite the ruins and overcrowdedness. At their most-basic level these photos are about a place rather than the people in it. It’s clear that, rather than being photos of people, the actual subject in each photo is Seoul. There’s a palpable sense of love and romance. Seoul is home and Han Youngsoo is sharing how he sees it—what he feels about it—with us.

And it’s a Seoul in transition. The Korean War ended in 1953. These photos cover the period between 1956 and 1963. The city is in the midst of rebuilding as well as westernizing and modernizing. There are still some ruins visible—a shattered roofline here or there but never as the focus of the image. There are english-language signs all over the place. Infrastructure is in a state of flux where streets—when they’re paved—are shared between handcarts and electric trollies. The trajectory is clear.

It’s with the women though—especially their clothing—where the photos tell their most interesting history. These aren’t Winogrand-like photos of women, they’re just conscious of how the changing nature of the city is impacting women in particular. They wear clothing which ranges from hanbok to cutting-edge 1960s fashion. The advertisements and street displays and magazines are all peddling western fashions. Only in one crowded street market is traditional clothing still available.

It’s clear that with the changing fashions that the women’s roles are also changing toward a more middle class direction. And that the city itself is becoming a consumer-based city* of shops and merchants.

*The men don’t show this narrative at all. They all wear western clothing and none of the shops or new consumer goods are marketed for men’s consumption.

I love a great photo as much as anyone but with street photography much of the appeal is how it can document a specific time and place—whether it captures a city and its population in a specific window of time or manages to document how they change. Han Youngsoo’s photos are beautiful but the history and changes he documents is even better

 

Princeton Art Museum Grab Bag

I’ve visited the Princeton Art Museum a couple times over the past few months and, while I haven’t had the ganas to write a full post about each exhibition I saw, I did still have some thoughts. So what follows is a quick grab bag post about a handful of exhibitions and installations which caught my eye or provoked a reaction.

Epic Tales from India

Aniruddha Is Abducted by Usha’s Handmaiden, Nepal, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, folio: 37.6 × 55 cm; painting: 33 × 50 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

Aniruddha Is Abducted by Usha’s Handmaiden, Nepal, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, folio: 37.6 × 55 cm; painting: 33 × 50 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

The Epic Tales show was super-detailed and, in many ways, was more like seeing an illustrated book than a collection of paintings. This was one of the most narrative-heavy shows I’ve seen and even despite all that I was glad to have a working knowledge of most of the tales on display. There still wasn’t enough room to have proper descriptions of the stories.

The paintings are wonderfully intricate and colorful with lots of small detailwork to inspect as you’re expected to read the story through the images. I particularly like how images from different regions are compared and how you can see distinctions in regional style while still seeing the same story.

I also can’t help but think that it would be very interesting to structure an exhibition of “Epic Tales from Europe” which focused on the narrative and functional aspects of what museums traditionally display as “fine art.” Much of the European tradition of religious art is explicitly about telling the stories in the Bible or the lives of the saints yet those narratives are almost absent from the museums now.*

*I’ve had to explain to people before—particularly with the saints—what it is they’re looking at since the museum texts assume a level of cultural knowledge that no longer (if it ever) existed.

Beading African History

Yoruba artist Ifa Divination Bag (apo ileke), 20th century Colored beads, cloth, and leather bag: h. 25.2 cm., w. 26.9 cm., d. 2.0 cm. (9 15/16 x 10 9/16 x 13/16 in.) strap: l. 94.0 cm. (37 in.) Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951 Place made: Nigeria 1998-733

Yoruba artist
Ifa Divination Bag (apo ileke), 20th century
Colored beads, cloth, and leather
bag: h. 25.2 cm., w. 26.9 cm., d. 2.0 cm. (9 15/16 x 10 9/16 x 13/16 in.)
strap: l. 94.0 cm. (37 in.)
Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951
Place made: Nigeria
1998-733

I loved the Beading African History installation. It acknowledges how beads and beading reflected a global trade in beads and supplies and also used the beadwork to compare and contrast art across multiple countries and regions. It’s not as cool as the Vlisco show but it’s working along the same lines.

Given how the Princeton Museum has a tendency to lump all of “Africa” together in the basement where all countries and all time periods get flattened into a generic “tribal” presentation, seeing it embracing a medium which demonstrates the commonalities through the lens of trade and colonialism was a nice change of pace.

Echoes of One Hand Clapping

Japanese, Meiji period, 1868–1912 Kobayashi Kiyochika 小林清親, 1847–1915 Published by Matsuki Heikichi 松木平吉 Private Onoguchi Tokuji Destroying the Gate at Jinzhou, 1894 Woodblock print (ōban tate-e triptych); ink and color on paper each sheet: 34.9 x 23.5 cm. (13 3/4 x 9 1/4 in.) overall: 34.9 x 70.3 cm. (13 3/4 x 27 11/16 in.) Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Japanese Print Collection Place made: Japan 2008-122 a-c

Japanese, Meiji period, 1868–1912
Kobayashi Kiyochika 小林清親, 1847–1915
Published by Matsuki Heikichi 松木平吉
Private Onoguchi Tokuji Destroying the Gate at Jinzhou, 1894
Woodblock print (ōban tate-e triptych); ink and color on paper
each sheet: 34.9 x 23.5 cm. (13 3/4 x 9 1/4 in.)
overall: 34.9 x 70.3 cm. (13 3/4 x 27 11/16 in.)
Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Japanese Print Collection
Place made: Japan
2008-122 a-c

Minor White. The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Pultneyville, New York) October 10, 1957 Gelatin silver print image: 18.5 × 23 cm (7 5/16 × 9 1/16 in.) sheet: 20.8 × 25.8 cm (8 3/16 × 10 3/16 in.) x1980-3278

Minor White.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Pultneyville, New York)
October 10, 1957
Gelatin silver print
image: 18.5 × 23 cm (7 5/16 × 9 1/16 in.)
sheet: 20.8 × 25.8 cm (8 3/16 × 10 3/16 in.)
x1980-3278

Ugh. Echoes of One Hand Clapping is one of the laziest exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Yes it’s great to see all of Minor White’s Sound of one Hand Clapping sequence on display. But to use that as a jumping off point for an entire exhibition of “sound in Asian art”? Please.

It’s a cliched title with a surface-level understanding of asianness being used in a way which is directly contradictory to the koan’s meaning. It does a disservice to White’s photos and doesn’t tell us anything about the rest of the artwork on display.

And yes, the ten photos are good and I enjoy the sequencing. It’s always nice to be reminded that photos aren’t supposed to be viewed as single images. I was however far from the proper state of mind when I looked at them. That they’re hung a little high, there’s a small counter in the way so you can’t look closely, and the light is pretty dim didn’t help either.

Revealing Pictures

Edmund Clarke Negative Publicity #035 (Detail from the kitchen of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site), 2012

Edmund Clarke
Negative Publicity #035 (Detail from the kitchen of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site), 2012

Pieter Hugo Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16

Pieter Hugo
Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16

I had to walk through Revealing Pictures twice. The way the museum has chosen to display the photos gave me an uneasy sense of treating black bodies as a form of ruin porn where an aesthetic appeal is used to gloss over the underlying trauma in the image. This is specifically a problem with the hanging and wall text and is not at all a critique of the images themselves. The installation over-emphasises the underlying trauma and spends a lot of time trumpeting the presence of non-western, non-white subject matter.

The show however is not about this at all and is instead both much simpler and much more my kind of thing.

While there’s no catalog, the small saddlestitched handout includes a short bio of the collector* The bio saves the entire show. He’s not interested in trauma, he’s found himself interested in understated portraits and landscapes which require additional context to understand. And he’s been smart enough to recognize that instead of collecting one image per artist, collecting a handful of images from each series/artist explains the context better than any wall text.

*As well as a picklist for the show which is the kind of awesome thing every museum should hand out.

There’ve been occasional rants in photoland about the increase in conceptual photography and how photos are no longer about just the image. I find myself rolling my eyes at these rants because you can’t escape context no matter how hard you try. This small show makes the case for context in even the most straightforward images and for recognizing how much photography relies on that information for its power.*

*Two things I’ve thought about before on this blog both in a general sense and in terms of a specific exhibition on context.

Also in Philadelphia

A quick roundup of other highlights from my visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art after looking at Mexican Modernism and Vlisco.

Jitish Kallat

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Jitish Kallat’s* Covering Letter is an interesting counterpoint to all the anti-fascist art on display in Mexican Modernism. I appreciate the ideal of appealing to peace and compassion in the face of hatred and violence. But I also like the ambiguity of the mist being both an indicator of the inability of one party to receive and understand that message and a reflection of how maybe words and compassion might not be sufficient. As with the anti-fascist artwork, Kallat’s piece is sadly extremely relevant to today’s reality.

*I’ve previously seen another of his installations in San José

This installation also really really messed with my “don’t touch the artwork” instincts. You’re supposed to walk on the projected light. You’re supposed to walk through the mist. But I found myself avoiding doing both and instead blundered into the wall a couple times until I got over that mental block.

Oki Sato

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This was actually a design installation featuring three designers. I wasn’t really feeling it with Faye Toogood* or Zanini de Zanine,** but I really liked Oki Sato’s work and the way he’s really pushing both the technical properties of how things are built as well as playing with how products are used and interact with each other.

*Her work reminded me of Droog Design but with only a superficial understanding of what made a lot of Droog’s things so smart. But I did really like the idea of listing everyone who made the clothing on the tag.

**Nice reclaimed wood furniture and very nice to see some sustainability being brought to design. But I wasn’t struck by much beyond the materials sourcing. The pieces were nice but sort of forgettable.

His dishes are great, especially in how they recognize that people do more than just eat with them. They’re meant to literally be played with and they bring a smile to my face. I especially love his chairs though. Some, like the fadeout chair, are possibly too clever. But others, such as the splinter chair, result in a complete reimagining of what’s possible with laminates, wooden rods, and joinery.

In most cases though the result is both extremely subtle while also being an in-your-face flourish. I’m not sure how he manages to do that but I’m impressed.

New South Asian Galleries

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After my experience at The Met last year, I’ve become increasingly suspicious of these encyclopedic museums—especially when it comes to art from non-white cultures. Rather than walking through “The Basement” though I was pleasantly surprised by the redone South Asian galleries and how they’re as much about the evolution of how the museum has treated the artwork as they are about the artwork itself.

In room after room, there was wall text or an interactive display about where the art came from, how it was acquired, how it used to be displayed, and what previous curators believed the goal of the museum should be with respect to the artwork. This became especially interesting given how the Philadelphia Museum went through a “collect entire rooms” phase and many of the galleries in this wing are literally entire rooms which the museum acquired.

The information about the temple hall is especially good because not only does it have a very interesting history in terms of acquisition and display* but also serves as the inspiration for acquiring other rooms to display alongside the hall.

*Originally purchased from a rubble pile, re-assembled in Philly, have gone though multiple conceptions of light levels and scholarship into how they were originally experienced.

I wish more museums follow Philadelphia’s example here. As interesting as the artwork is in terms of what it tells us about the culture it came from. the way that we’ve acquired and chosen to display things says a lot about the way our culture has evolved too.

Vlisco

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I went to Philadelphia to see Mexican Modernism. However, I came back unable to stop talking about the Vlisco show. It was one of the better shows I’ve seen in general and packing everything into a single gallery resulted in a wonderful density of subjects to cover.

First, the actual fabric itself is a fantastic illustration of globalization. This particular batik technique originated in Java. It got taken to the Netherlands by Dutch colonists where the manufacturing process became automated. The resulting fabric then got taken by the Dutch to different African countries for market. The resulting fabrics are both authentically African but also truly international.

The Dutch sold different patterns in different countries so, while there are similarities in terms everything being Vlisco, there are also distinctions between countries and the exhibition does a good job at flagging how those different patterns came to represent different countries.

At the same time, Vlisco also sold some of these patterns to The West as resortwear. So where within Africa a specific pattern corresponds to a specific country, outside of Africa westerners are encouraged to see the patterns as “African.”

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One of the fun things with the Vlisco patterns is how they get repeatedly reworked and referenced. It’s not just that a pattern gets printed and reprinted in multiple colorways—which can look completely different even if the pattern itself is the same—instead elements of the old, classic patterns are sampled years later.

So the roundels which represent the wheels on a bus pattern become a pattern of circular devices. Or the swallows in a pattern or replaced by airplanes. Or maybe the swallows themselves get sampled and turned into a tesselation. The designs and devices are in a constant state of remixing—giving the entire industry a sense of vitality and energy.

The show wasn’t just a collection of patterns over time. That would’ve been easy and obvious and kind of boring. Instead all the remixes were paired and grouped with the their sources so that the relationships could be called out and viewed. The point isn’t just the history of the fabric, it’s in how that history is constantly self-referential.

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Viewing just the patterns and how they reference each other would’ve been a decent show in its own right. But there were also a ton of dresses on display which took the entire room to a different level since many of the dresses used prints which were on display.

Being able to see the flat printed patterns makes looking at the dresses a wonderful puzzle where you can figure out how the fabric is used based on the way the print shows up in the garment. And the designers do absolutely insane things in how they embrace the printed patterns.

Some of the dresses rotate the warp/weft to get the right print alignment. Others creating the cutting/seam pattern around the print itself so as to avoid certain elements—typically words or lettering. Many of the dresses have cut the fabric along the lines of the print itself so that instead of a straight seam the edge of the garment is irregular and the fabric becomes its own trim.

The dresses also showed exactly how different the patterns can look depending on the colors they’re printed in. Again, as with the patterns on the wall, the dresses which use the same print were displayed next to each other. However, because the garments are so different, I could be looking at two dresses for minutes and not realize that they were using the same print. It’s not enough that they different when one is printed in cyan/red/navy and the other is pink/red/maroon, the resulting difference in character also suggests completely different styles of dress.

With all that, the show still managed to find space in the gallery to have a large display about the process of dying the fabric. I love seeing these in general but this display used fabric samples which were the same size as every other sample on the walls. Instead of being an afterthought or a concession, it was an integral part of the show.

Not only did the process information show how the fabric is printed, it showed the different ways that variants could be produced. It’s simple to think of different colorways as just being using different inks in each step. But steps can be omitted or added as well and the combination of these differences opens up a huge number of variants of the same print.

Anyway, history, technology, design, culture, marketing, evolution, process, fashion, fabrication, color, and pattern. All in one room. All working together so the density of information makes sense. This show was great. Too bad there wasn’t a catalog.

Horace Poolaw

Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944. 45UFL14 © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944.

Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1947. © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1947.

Horace Poolaw, “Sindy Libby Keahbone (Kiowa) and Hannah Keahbone (Kiowa),” Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1930.

“Sindy Libby Keahbone (Kiowa) and Hannah Keahbone (Kiowa),” Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1930.

Left to right: Juanita Daugomah Ahtone (Kiowa), Evalou Ware Russell (center), Kiowa Tribal Princess, and Augustine Campbell Barsh (Kiowa) in the American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941. © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

The American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941.

After seeing Nation to Nation, I checked out the Horace Poolaw show. Poolaw photographed his Oklahoma community for about five decades in the mid-20th century. While he operated a bit as a professional photographer doing weddings and funerals and other big events his photographs are all effectively insider images. They’re both of his community and for consumption by that community alone.

The community is one which most of us typically see only through the white gaze. The photos aren’t actively dealing with self-representation issues. They document and are an archive of people who society tends to ignore.

We rarely get to see Indians as regular people. This allows and encourages society to think of them as no longer existing in today’s world. A lot of this caused by the way that the concept of “authenticity” is linked with Indian regalia and appearances. Being Indian is either a very specific physical stereotype of dark skin and sharp features or it’s a costume which can be appropriated by anyone.

It’s weird and unexpected to see Indian clothing mixed with western clothing or settings. So seeing Indians dressed in regalia while driving or posing by modern cars just like any other mid-century American would pose is striking. The same goes with seeing soldiers wearing war bonnets with their military uniforms. Poolaw’s photos though are full of this kind of thing and we get used to seeing the mixing and matching. Even in what seems to be a straight photograph of two women in their regalia standing in front of a teepee we notice how the younger one has a modern haircut and makeup.

All too often museums present Indian culture* as a stagnant craft which exists outside of the influence of other cultures. In Poolaw’s photos we see how his culture is changing over the decades, especially with how opening up the Kiowa reservation to non-Kiowa settlers resulted in a culture where everyone is blending their heritages together. There are different Indian Nations intermarrying. There’s the whole Indians serving in the US Armed Forces and celebrating homecomings and departures with traditional ceremonies. It’s a lot of fun to see and is a necessary reminder of how all of cultures are living and growing things.

*Or any non-white culture really.

Historically, the photos are also very interesting because they cover the time from the Indian Citizenship Act to the Indian Civil Rights Act. This is a time period in which Indian Nations gain both more autonomy for themselves to eventually practice their religions and traditions as well as more rights within the United States as US citizens with protected rights.

Poolaw specifically covers the development of Indian autonomy with his photos of the events which eventually developed into the what we now know of as American Indian Pow Wows. These photos work as a celebration of being Indian, archive of how the growth of acceptance of celebrating that by general American culture, and an uneasy critique of how the growing acceptance of powwow events has also lead them to be commodities.

His photos of the participants are wonderful relaxed photos of people who are at ease with the photographer and trust that their image won’t be exploited. His photos of the increased acceptance of these events are similarly fun to see as the people are increasingly able to operate in a mixed culture. His photos of the crowds and photographers who are watching the events though demonstrate his unease with how, as the culture is able to express itself more, it’s also increasingly accessible for consumption.*

*As someone who attends and photographs these events these photos also serve as a warning to me about how I should respect the space and the participants.

While it’s good that these cultural events no longer have to be practiced in a small private setting, the big events risk taking them from being for the participants and centering the audience instead. Poolaw, by being both an Indian and a photographer is able to straddle those worlds.

Nation to Nation

“The Great Smoke” case features a series of pipes and pipe bags as part of The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian’s latest exhibition, Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Smoking played an important role at the Horse Creek Treaty gathering. The exhibition opens to the public at the National Museum of the American Indian on September 21, 2014. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian)

Since the National Museum of the American Indian has the best food of the Smithsonian institutions, it’s easy to find an excuse to visit it should I be museuming on The Mall. And once I’m inside it’s easy to stay and wander around. So after having lunch after visiting the Hirshhorn, I ended up exploring a number of the exhibits in the Museum of the American Indian.

Nation to Nation looks at the history of treaties between Indian nations and the United States, or colonies which would become the United States. I was curious and apprehensive walking in to this show since that history isn’t one which covers the United States in a lot of glory. My biggest hope was that I wouldn’t get too pissed off—whether in the brutality of the history covered or, even worse, by letting that history off the hook.

Thankfully I didn’t get too upset either way. The show is very good. It covers a whole range of treaties starting with those between the Colonies and various Indian Nations and it gets into what worked, what didn’t, and how even when things worked they only worked for maybe a generation.* It went into communication issues both in terms of how the different parties value written versus oral commitments** and how certain concepts were untranslatable.*** It covered the points of view and goals that the negotiating parties were coming from and how those points of views changed during negotiation.

*Best example here is William Penn’s treaty with the Lenape. 

**Both in the initial agreement and in how it’s remembered for the future.

***From concrete concepts like reservations to more abstract ones like who has the authority to make decisions on behalf of an entire group.

And it didn’t shy away from the repeated displacement of Indian Nations as settlers kept moving west. It details the brutality and death toll of the forced marches. It laments the loss of botanical and medicinal knowledge which accompanied moving away from native lands. It poses the difficult choice many Indians faced about staying with—and as part of—the tribe by selling their land and moving west as well or by taking that money and trying to stay “at home” even if it meant being detribalized.*

*The legacy of that choice is still complicating things today.

Nor did it ignore how the treaties often put the US Government at odds with what the local authorities wanted. In many cases, the US Government was negotiating treaties to protect the Indians from hostile states and settlers. Sometimes this worked out and prevented—or at least delayed—conflicts such as the one between Georgia and the Creek Nation. Other times, such as in California, the state was able to successfully lobby Congress to not ratify the treaty—resulting in an extermination campaign becoming part of the gold rush.

I appreciated how throughout the timeline, while centering Indian priorities, the exhibit also managed to tell the history of the United States in how its priorities changed as it matured as a country. Where the early treaties are chiefly concerned with keeping the peace and avoiding any armed conflicts that the newly-formed country couldn’t afford, later treaties become more and more explicitly about taking land and, effectively, building empire across the continent.

By the middle of the 19th century, as the military might of the US has increased to where it doesn’t have to worry about armed conflict as much, the treaty negotiations become more one-sided and the US demands become more complicated. It’s no longer just about displacing people so you can live on their land, it’s about land as an exploitable resource for mining, commercial agriculture, or transportation right of ways.

But what I appreciated most is how the exhibit follows the history all the way through to the present day. It’s very clear that, despite the history of broken promises, the fact that there were agreements between the US and Indian Nations remains an important precedent to remember. It’s why the Haudenosaunee insist on receiving the cloth from the Treaty of Canandaigua rather than accepting a monetary payment. The symbolism of the agreement and the recognition by the US Government matters more than the payment now. It’s how the preservation of fishing grounds in the Medicine Creek Treaty are still legally valid today. It’s the way that native children have to be treated as the citizens of those Indian Nations which they are.

I only wish that in the current-day sections of this show, in addition to the political/legal movements in gaining and maintaining increased Indian sovereignty, there was also information about things like the Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s a real sense that most of the conflict and negotiation regarding these treaties has moved to Washington DC or is taking place inside courtrooms. That there are also conflicts on the ground is important to remember. Especially when one of the most-visible conflicts is currently occurring in territory which is covered in one of the treaties which is on display. It shouldn’t be up to the audience to make those connections.