Three members of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community participated in events at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson on November 7 and 8. The events accompanied the exhibit Regarding Curtis: Contemporary Indian Artists Respond to the Imagery of Edward S. Curtis, which will be on display at the museum through the end of March 2015 as part of the overarching exhibit Curtis Reframed: The Arizona Portfolios, which runs through July 2015.
Community member Aleta Ringlero is a scholar and museum curator pursuing her Ph.D. in art history, with a focus on photography of Native people. She is a co-curator of the Curtis Reframed exhibit. The Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona, along with Tucson’s renowned Center for Creative Photography, houses one of the largest collections of Edward S. Curtis photographs.
On Friday, November 7, a panel discussion among an array of prominent Native American artists on the topic “Curtis Reframed,” was scheduled to be moderated by Aleta Ringlero an accomplished scholar in art history. The debate on the work of Curtis, a renowned photographer of Native Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has been an ongoing discussion ever since his photographs were published. The photographs have been viewed by many Native Americans as controversial, inaccurate and, in some instances, not “real” depictions of Native peoples at the time.
On Saturday, November 8, Ringlero was scheduled to be one of the appointed subjects in the Tintype Photography segment that was a part of the modern artistry exhibit of Will Wilson, a Navajo photographer. This experience was a rare opportunity to see Wilson shoot portraits and hear him describe the tintype photography process, which is similar in form of what Edward S. Curtis used in his early career. Just as significant is that Ringlero will be one of the subjects in Wilsons’ “Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange” (CIPX), a multi-year project in which Wilson was influenced by Curtis’ work to create similar photographic portraits of contemporary Native people.
The purpose of the exhibit Regarding Curtis: Contemporary Indian Artists Respond to the Imagery of Edward S. Curtis is to provide opportunities for Native American artists to comment on and critique Curtis’ works, allowing for competing viewpoints on the historical photographs. The end result highlights how Curtis’ work impacted artists, influenced how some created their art forms to convey their contemporary views, and how the invited artists reflected their own identity.
Community member Annabel Wong, a member of the Salt River School Board, contributed her photographic portraits of O’odham people to the exhibit. In one photo, Wong produced an image of a contemporary O’odham female judge, wearing a judge’s robe and holding a gavel, standing barefoot among the desert landscape—it’s an image that stands in stark contrast to Edward Curtis’ portrayals of traditional O’odham women.
In Regarding Curtis: Contemporary Indian Artists Respond to the Imagery of Edward S. Curtis, the artwork and personal statements of contemporary Native American artists, working in a variety of media, lend depth and add complexity to the Curtis photogravures on exhibit. According to the exhibit summary, “Many [artists] explore ways to reclaim ownership of Native identity from the enduring perceptions created and imposed upon them by non-Native explorers, colonizers, missionaries, historians and artists.”
Wong noted, “People come from New York, a mecca of fine art and art instruction, and from all over the world to see the collection at the University of Arizona … for Native people and for individuals of our tribe to be represented is a real honor and is a reflection of the hard work and the accomplishments academically, artistically and creatively of the individuals involved.”
Graffiti as Contemporary Art
Dwayne Manuel, another tribal member of SRPMIC, is an art teacher at Salt River High School. He helped to facilitate the Neoglyphix: All Indigenous Aerosol Art Expo, which took place on Saturday, November 8, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the museum. This all-day tribute to Native youth culture celebrated graffiti elevated to an art form. Temporary walls were constructed on the museum’s front lawn for the artists. More than a dozen Native American aerosol artists from the Tohono O’odham, Onk Akimel O’odham, and other tribes worked together, using up more than 200 cans of spray paint, and fed off each other’s work to create a mural on site at the museum. The day’s events also included poetry slams, fashion, rap performances and dance music.
Graffiti, or “tagging,” is a contemporary art form that is fast expanding in appreciation. The youth culture has elevated the applications of “street art” to new heights. Manuel indicated that he, along with Thomas “Breze” Marcus, a Tohono O’odham artist, are more well known among youth because of the medium in which they are involved, which is youth focused.
When Manuel was asked to describe street art, he said, “It is a beautiful thing when you collaborate with somebody, you see it naturally unfold, it is not planned, it is intuitive … it’s like magic, it all comes together.” As Manuel spoke further, he elaborated, “It is like problem-solving, without talking to each other … If an artist lays down a color, you will have to think what color you will use …. My knowledge of color theory comes into play, what color complements what was just painted, etc.”
Encouraging Emerging Artists
Manuel and Wong earned master of fine art degrees from the University of Arizona and the Parsons School of Design in New York City, respectively. Their hope and aspiration is that by sharing their artist profiles and highlighting their participation in exhibits, such as the Curtis programming at the Arizona State Museum, it will show other tribal members, young and old, that contemporary art, especially in the Native American genre, is unlimited.
In their words, “There are a lot of creative people within [the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community]; therefore, our hope is that by sharing the exhibits with the Community, it will show what opportunities are available to artists interested in fine art.”
The inclusion of three SRPMIC artists in the Curtis events at the museum is a distinction not many other tribes can claim. It provides a glimpse into the cache of talent within the tribe, confirming that on the horizon there may lay other talented people who will also take their place on the forefront of contemporary Native American fine art.