Imagine, if you will, an American Indian in those years before encirclement by European Americans became complete. Perhaps you picture a chief, a young warrior on horseback, or a mother with a babe – each of them in traditional dress, maybe even full regalia. The image in the mind’s eye comes in the coppery duotone of the antiquated, early twentieth-century cameras, a portrait from a lost age. Though you may not be able to place the artist’s name, the pictured memory likely comes from photographer Edward Curtis, whose 20-volume opus, The North American Indian, established the indelible iconography of Native Americans.
For more than 20 years, Diné photographer Will Wilson has used his own lens to offer a different perspective on Native American portraiture. Wilson – born in San Francisco and raised on the Navajo reservation in Arizona – isn’t necessarily a critic of Curtis’s work, which he says represents a “remarkable body of ethnographic material.” The problem, according to Wilson, is that the popular image of the American Indian has hardly changed in 100 years, and remains stuck in the “lacquered romanticism of these stereotypical portraits.” Wilson is determined to show something different and, in the process, offer an updated picture of Indian life.
Using the same wet-process technique of developing photographs that Curtis used and employing a 140-year-old lens, Wilson has created hundreds of tintypes of contemporary Native Americans. Wilson calls this long-running series the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange. By “exchange” he means “conversation”; Wilson’s images represent a kind of century-long artistic dialogue with Curtis. The combination of old-fashioned technique and contemporary subjects make for a potent frisson. The old stereotypes melt away, replaced by real people, living in the here and now. The subjects are Indians, to be sure – and they are modern Americans without a doubt.
A similar collision between romanticism and reality occurs in Wilson’s series, AIR, or Auto Immune Response. Since 2004, Wilson has been taking self-portraits amid the canyons and mesas of Navajo territory. The landscapes are stunning, breathtaking – so why is Wilson wearing a gas mask in the photomontages? To reveal, he says, “the quixotic relationship between the post-apocalyptic Diné man … and the toxic environment he inhabits.” By this he means the reservation’s uranium mines and its massive, coal-burning power plant. The scenery of the desert Southwest may be beautiful, but the setting is poisonous.
The environmental destruction that has occurred on tribal lands raises difficult questions for Native communities: How have once-familiar landscapes become strange even to their original inhabitants? How can, and should, Native communities respond in order to reconnect to the earth? As an artist, Wilson doesn’t attempt an answer. But his work provides an important starting point. By taking control of the camera, Wilson helps ensure that tribal communities have the power to write their own story – to, as he says, participate in the “re-inscription of their customs and values.”
Will Wilson’s art has been exhibited at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Denver Art Museum, and the Santa Fe Museum of Art, among many other galleries and museums. He is a past recipient of Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art. You can find more of his work at willwilson.photoshelter.com.
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