Exhibition | Native America: In Translation
Historical representations of Native North Americans by non-Native artists, often reflecting ethnographic stereotypes and tainted by histories of scientific racism, have long saturated the visual field while failing to offer accurate and nuanced portraits of Indigeneity in American history and life. Native America: In Translation—on view at the Museum’s gallery space Art on Hulfish—presents a new vision for contemporary Native American representation. The exhibition features the work of ten artists for whom art making is a powerful act of reclaiming autonomy and control over individual and collective Indigenous identities and histories. Through photography and other lens-based media, the artists celebrate abstraction, experimentation, and a kaleidoscope of associations with history, family, and community. The exhibitionʼs curator, Wendy Red Star, showcases artists who counter centuries of erasure and coercion and empower Indigenous communities to envision their own futures.
The Cree artist Kimowan Metchewais (1963–2011) mined his personal archive to create works that investigate identity, landscape, and language. Metchewais’s notebooks—now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian—contain what he referred to as “post-Curtis portraits,” in which the artist elevates Indigeneity in response to the photographer Edward Curtis (1868–1952), who created highly stylized and divisive images of Native American life and culture in the early twentieth century.1Metchewais maintained a vast collection of Polaroid photographs that he organized by subject and incorporated into his art. He often reproduced his mixed-media collages of images, capturing the tape, creases, and folds of the assemblages, as large-scale works on paper, creating his own visual landscapes. The art historian Christopher Green notes that Metchewais’s Polaroids “freed him from a reliance on archival images. Instead, [his] use of personal source imagery avoided the need for intervention, interrogation, and reinscription that typically weighs down some work by contemporary Native photographers who explore the archive as a site of privileged access, subjugation, and colonial violence.”2
Metchewais’s series Cold Lake consists of candid photographs of the residents and landscape around Cold Lake First Nations reservation in Alberta, Canada, where the artist lived until he departed for art school and later a professorship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On view in the exhibition, the work Cold Lake Fishing assembles photographs of Metchewais and his brother, taken from the lakeshore by the artist’s mother, to form a collage—a patische of memory—that is identified as Cold Lake in Cree syllabics, the forms and syllables adapted to the Cree dialect.
An artist and trans activist of Mayan heritage, Martine Gutierrez (born 1989) creates vibrant portraits that explore gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. In her series Indigenous Woman (2018), Gutierrez fixes her lens on herself to explore how race and skin color change conceptions of ideal beauty and desire in mass media. The series takes the form of a 124-page magazine, similar to publications like Vogue and Bazaar that focus on high fashion and commerce as well as art and culture. Gutierrez posed as a model to highlight both her Indigenous ethnicity and the stereotypes that photography is often complicit in generating—of a woman who embodies fantasies of the exotic and is somehow closer to nature, spellbinding, and sexually available—in order to show how the camera might also be used to unravel those characteristics engrained in the mainstream imagination and used by the fashion industry. According to Gutierrez, “Indigenous Woman marries the traditional to the contemporary, the native to the postcolonial, and the marginalized to the mainstream in the pursuit of genuine selfhood, revealing cultural inequities along the way. This is a quest for identity. Of my own specifically, yes, but . . . I am also probing the depths for some understanding of identity as a social construction.”3
For more than thirty years, Alan Michelson, a Mohawk member of the Six Nations of the Grand River, has produced evocative, influential works that excavate colonial histories. From his early film and photographic “reenactments” (as he refers to them) to his more recent experimentation with augmented reality, history remains present as unfinished business demanding attention and redress. “Indigenous models, including those of survivance, active presence, and resistance, provide an alternative,” says Michelson.4 For his work Hanödaga:yas (Town Destroyer), Michelson uses a replica of a bust of George Washington created by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon as a base for projection. Michelson states, “In 2018, the approaching 240th anniversary of Washington’s 1779 destruction of Iroquoia—our extensive homelands in what is now New York State—prompted me to get a life-size replica bust and project archival imagery onto it to tell the story of invasion and forced eviction.” The imagery includes historical maps and New York State historic markers that appear to celebrate genocide by commemorating Iroquois towns and fields destroyed by the Continental army. “My video pans over the map of the campaign, pausing at the places where Washington’s armies destroyed Iroquois villages, all of it playing out over his face. One of my goals is to defeat American amnesia and denial.”5
Mellon Curator of Academic Engagement
1Kimowan Metchewais [McLain] collection, Sketchbooks, “Post Curtis Portraits of Contemporary Indians,” National Museum of the American Indian, NMAI-084_021_00_014. Christopher Green, “Kimowan Metchewais: A Kind of Prayer,” Aperture, no. 240 (Fall 2020): 64–75.
2Green, “Kimowan Metchewais," 66.
3Martine Gutierrez, “Martine Gutierrez at the Ryan Lee in New York, United States," Wall Street International, September 18, 2018.
4Chrissie Iles, “For Alan Michelson, History Is Always Present,” Aperture, no. 240 (Fall 2020): 107.
5Iles, 104, 106.
Native America: In Translation is curated by Wendy Red Star. The exhibition is organized by Aperture Foundation, New York, and is made possible, in part, with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Art on Hulfish is made possible by the leadership support of Annette Merle-Smith and by Princeton University. Generous support is also provided by John Diekman, Class of 1965, and Susan Diekman; William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher; J. Bryan King, Class of 1993; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; Barbara and Gerald Essig; Jim and Valerie McKinney; Nancy A. Nasher, Class of 1976, and David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976; H. Vincent Poor, Graduate Class of 1977; the Curtis W. McGraw Foundation; Palmer Square Management; and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional supporters include the Humanities Council, the Lewis Center for the Arts, the Department of English, the Center for Collaborative History, the Gender + Sexuality Resource Center, the Graduate School, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton (NAISIP).