Indigenous Artists: New Photo and Painting Exhibits Highlight Native American Identity and History

In the past few weeks, the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) in West Bend opened two new exhibits by Indigenous artists to the public.

On July 23, the museum opened the first major retrospective of Ho-Chunk photographer Tom Jones, which features 120 photos of sixteen bodies of work spanning 25 years.

Curator Graeme Reid said MOWA had worked with Jones for 13 years and a consistent thread in Jones’ work was the interplay between white and Indian culture. Jones’ “Studies in Cultural Appropriation” series examines the fashion industry’s use of Native American designs.

It includes an image of a white man and a white woman, with the outline of the man’s clothes cut out. The space is filled by laying the card on indigenous objects such as beads, fabrics and weavings.

“There’s something a friend of mine once said,” said Jones, a photography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “She came to a show and she said, ‘Your work is so beautiful, but when you really look at it and stand up to it, it smacks you.'”

“We are here”

Jones’ exhibit and paintings by White Earth Nation painter Tom Antell deal with the lost land heritage of their tribes.

“It’s a strange thing because someone might look at this painting and see it as a painting of a plowed field,” Antell said. “But when you understand it was painted by a Native American, it’s probably going to take on a different context.”

Jones said the name of his exhibit refers to how the residents of Ho-Chunk were expelled from Wisconsin by the United States government and later returned.

“And so I decided to say ‘Here We Stand’ to let people know that we are still in our original homeland,” Jones said.

Jones’ work has been featured at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago. He has been photographing his tribe since 1998, and he wasn’t sure he would have the same access to their homes if he wasn’t a member of the community.

Reid described Jones’ photography as “firmly grounded in the present”, adding that it “offers a counter-narrative to traditional representations of Indigenous culture”. Some of his photos, Jones said, display the identity of his subjects through an element, such as a bear tapestry or a plaster deer sitting on a television console.

“Every time you see these animals, even [in] contemporary ways, their clothes let you know they belong to a specific clan or group,” he said.

For one series, Jones took postcards of Native Americans he had collected since the 1980s and added lines from the song “My Country Tis of Thee,” he said in a video posted by MOWA.

“But I saw it as kind of a form of propaganda for myself to expose the story – I guess the real story of Native America – to get these things and to educate people about who we are,” said Jones.

Jones said his exhibit includes a memorial for fallen veterans: a grid of stitched photos, each capturing a photo that a veteran’s family displayed on a flag pole during the Memorial Day powwow. He plans to eventually create a book with photos from this series dating back to 1999.

“[There are] some [photos from] when they join the military so it will be in their uniforms, or it could be dance badges, it could be a grandfather with a grandchild, so there’s just a real mix of how they are represented,” Jones said. “That’s how families want them to be represented. And that’s what interests me. »

“A Horn of Destruction”

Tom Antell’s first-ever exhibit opened at MOWA on July 16, titled “Strange Lands.” Antell has stated that a series of his paintings depict sailors complicit in the conquest and colonization of the Americas. The appearance of sailors reflects the presence of disease and the changing American landscape, and their caps take on several meanings.

“I reverse the cornucopia, [and] it becomes both a tornado and a sailor’s cap. So it has multiple dimensions,” said Antell, 68, who lives on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in northern Wisconsin. “And then that’s the whole idea [of] the promise of this land of plenty, this land of thanksgiving, and what really came out of it. That’s why it also becomes a tornado. The cornucopia is actually a horn of destruction for Native Americans.

Antell said his grandfather and other relatives attended the federal Indian boarding school system which worked to assimilate indigenous peoples. He is working on a new series of paintings on Native American identity, which could be linked to schools.

“Like, what does it mean to be an Indian right now?” asked Antell, who taught Native American studies at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College. “Because obviously the traditions of an Indian 400 years ago are going to be different from the traditions of the contemporary Indian.”

Beginning Oct. 7, the Museum of Wisconsin Art will feature work examining “essential conflicts surrounding Native American identity” at its satellite location in Milwaukee. This will include more work from Antell and work from artists Sky Hopinka and Chris Cornelius.

Jones has also talked about his work and shows off some of his photography in a series of YouTube videos posted by MOWA. The Antell and Jones exhibits will remain open at the West Bend Museum until October 9.

Jack C. Nugent