Reflecting Lenses

Photography has played a pivotal role in depicting society for nearly two centuries. The phrase “a picture speaks a thousand words” is an old refrain. However, we must approach any image with caution and ask: who is telling the story and what are their objectives? As this show demonstrates, images by non-Native photographers have frequently portrayed Indigenous people in a dehumanising and stereotypical way. The Gorman Museum of Native American Art brings together 22 photographers who are redressing the balance. Artists from North America, Aotearoa and Australia, including Aimee Ratana, Cara Romero, Kimowan Metchewais, Lewis deSoto and Sarah Sense are presented. Prevalent ideas include social and environmental justice; connection to homeland; and Indigenous empowerment in the contemporary world.

Pioneers of early Indigenous photography are acknowledged, as is the emergence of a distinct Native point of view. These pictures not only restore dignity to the communities, but offer insights into the priorities and realities of lived Indigenous experiences. Pressing the shutter becomes an assertive act of visual sovereignty. Collective memory is a central theme, with shared traditions and historical events at the centre of these artists’ counter narratives. Many pictures examine issues of self- representation, and, in response, the museum uses the artists’ own words to convey their ideas and practice. The gallery is known for “stimulating critical thinking through politically and socially engaging exhibitions,” alongside “creating accessibility and removing all barriers to Native American contemporary art for all.” Gorman’s presentation certainly delivers on that mission. It is timely, relevant and expertly curated.

Gorman Museum, Davis, until 1 September |

Words: Shirley Stevenson

Image Credits:
1. Cara Romero, Water Memory, 2015.
2. Kimowan Mechewais, Cold Lake Venus, 2007.