A version of this column appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
‘Our People, Our Land, Our Images’ opens at Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman
The traveling exhibition includes more than 50 works by 26 artists representing three generations of indigenous photographers from North and South America, the Middle East and New Zealand.
Shan Goshorn doesn’t consider herself a photographer or painter, a jewelry maker or basket weaver, although she has done all those things.
“I consider myself an artist that chooses a medium to make a statement. So that’s why I’m interested in exploring,” she said.
“I think it’s really important as artists that we keep challenging ourselves and we keep reinventing ourselves. I really don’t want to be an artist that people go, ‘Oh, yawn, there’s another Shan Goshorn. You know, I recognize it right away.’ I like to keep things fresh and new – and I want to keep startling people.”
The Eastern Cherokee artist and activist, who is based in Tulsa, is among the 26 artists representing three generations of indigenous photographers spanning North and South America, the Middle East and New Zealand whose work is featured in “Our People, Our Land, Our Images.”
A long-running traveling exhibition that includes more than 50 images, it opens Friday at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, where Goshorn will give a public gallery talk at 6:30 p.m.
“These artists in particular are known for being thought provokers. I think they really stimulate a lot of, hopefully, dialogue,” the North Carolina native said by phone from Tulsa, where she has lived since 1981. “I’d like them (museum-goers) to see that Indian artists, Native artists, are as varied as any other culture in their approach to work.”
“Our People, Our Land, Our Images” originated at a 2006 photography exhibit and gathering at the C. N. Gorman Museum at the University of California, Davis. Museum director Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, who has work in the show, and curator Veronica Passalacqua have found that the exhibit has taken on a life of its own as it has traveled throughout the United States and Canada.
“It was kind of one of these crazy things where we had selected the artists who were involved to participate in the gathering and the exhibit, but we really didn’t know what they were going to bring. So it was exciting in that way and nerve-racking all that the same time,” Passalacqua said in a phone interview.
“The show turned out so much better than we could’ve expected, and then we started saying, ‘We need to take this further than just the Gorman.’ And that’s when I started developing a tour program for it.”
On view at the Norman museum through May 25, the traveling exhibit is a program of ExhibitsUSA, a national division of Mid-America Arts Alliance, with the Oklahoma Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Contemporary Native photography, it doesn’t participate so much in the art market … so it’s just to create an awareness that contemporary Native art reaches across a wide range of media, that contemporary Native photography and photography produced by Native people (dates back to) the 1890s, that it’s a really rich and diverse canon,” Passalacqua said, adding that Tsinhnahjinnie has family in the Seminole and Maud area.
“It was important to us that we included that area in this dialogue, at the table and at the exhibition. So I’m really excited that it’s going there. I think there’ll be really strong resonance with interpreting the works.”
Heather Ahtone, the James T. Bialac assistant curator of Native American and non-Western art at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum, said many of the photos make bold statements about stereotypes (like Erica Lord’s “I Tan to Look More Native”), identity issues (like Pena Bonita’s “Skywalker”) and relationships to place (like Tsinhnahjinnie’s “This is not a Commercial, this is my homeland”) that American Indians face in contemporary society.
“It’s difficult to talk about these things without sounding antagonistic. I think that’s one of the great things that art allows us to do is to look at this, put it into some perspective and maybe even change how we think about things in a positive manner for all of us,” Ahtone said.
To her, one of the exhibit’s most striking images comes from the Oklahoma Historical Society: “Graduating Class of 1902, Cherokee Female Seminary, Tahlequah, Oklahoma,” was taken by Jennie Ross Cobb, considered the first Native woman photographer. Ahtone said the photo refutes and proves the lasting damage of the “noble savage” stereotypes Edward S. Curtis depicted in his iconic but controversial photos.
“She was a Cherokee woman using a fairly new medium at that time in Indian Territory, Oklahoma Territory, documenting her classmates going to school at an institution of higher learning that was established by her tribal community … at a time when for many other women in the country that wouldn’t have been an opportunity for them, ” Ahtone said.
“That’s a perspective that in history sometimes gets lost, yet this photography allows us to re-engage that historical factor. … We can go ‘Oh, well, in the 1900s Indians looked a certain way,’ yet here we see these young Cherokee women looking quite fashionable.”
Weaving new statements
For Goshorn, the exhibit’s Oklahoma stop offers her a chance to reflect back on an artistic style and technique she explored for 30 years. “Our People, Our Land, Our Images” includes two of her hand-tinted, double-exposed, black-and-white photographs.
Although she still works in photography, most of her images she now cuts into splints along with historical documents that she then weaves into Cherokee-styles baskets that speak to various American Indian issues. For instance, the National Museum of the American Indian recently collected one of her baskets titled “No Honor” that weaves together a Washington Redskins pennant with shredded printouts of the American Heritage Dictionary definitions of the n-word and redskin.
“The definition is exactly the same: disparaging slang, offensive term used to refer to a Native American, to refer to a black person. I mean, come on, how much clearer can it be than that?” said Goshorn, who will be bringing some of her baskets to the gallery talk.
“You know, it’s real easy for people to say, ‘Eh, well, I’m part Indian. It’s no big deal. That was 200 years ago, that was 500 years ago, get over it.’ It’s not over. There’s a lot of things that are going on in Indian country that are still hugely impacted by our history and our relationship to the United States government – or in this case, governments around the world.”
‘Our People, Our Land, Our Images’
When: Friday through May 25.
Where: Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, 555 Elm Ave., on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman.
Public gallery talk: 6:30 p.m. Friday featuring Tulsa-based artist and activist Shan Goshorn.
Information: 325-4938 or www.ou.edu/fjjma.