American Indian focuses camera on her heritage
Written by DAVID DUPONT Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor
Friday, 17 May 2013 10:07
PERRYSBURG - Just how stubborn and pernicious the stereotype of American Indians is was demonstrated to Matika Wilbur when she traveled to Bali.
|Photographer Matika Wilbur is seen in the lobby of The River House Arts Gallery in Perrysburg, Ohio with a selection of her work in the background. (Photo: Enoch Wu/Sentinel-Tribune)
Looking for spiritual revitalization she was confronted by a "she-Jesus" dressed in white who contended when the Indians died she acquired their knowledge.
The American Indians have not died, Wilbur pointed out. She was an American Indian.
A member of the Tulalip Tribe who grew up on the Swinomish Indian Reservation in Washington State, she traces part of her lineage back to Chief Joseph.
She grew up in the family's fishing enterprise, but left to become a fashion photographer, and found herself working in Los Angeles "retouching Madonna's thighs."
Then she asked herself: "If I continue to do this how am I going to contribute to my society? Who will I become?"
She had "a total breakdown like a good artist," and abandoned fashion for documentary work, and then her grandmother appeared in a dream and told her to return to her homeland and photograph her people, she told an audience in Perrysburg Thursday.
That led to a series of portraits of Coast Salish Elders of the tribes that live along the Washington coast.
But she was interested in doing more than capturing images. She was looking for answers. "How do I navigate living in this society? How do I go from a ceremony Saturday and go out and call someone on my iPhone? How do I live traditionally when I have a television?"
Those photographs with some of the answers are now on display in "Matika Wilbur: Indian Enough" at River House Arts, 115 W. Front St. Paula Baldoni and William Jordan, who own the gallery, are staging this show, and planning others, as a way of injecting a Native American viewpoint into the ongoing commemoration of the War of 1812.
The impact of the conflict on Indians has largely been absent from the discussion, Jordan said.
Wilbur spoke at the gallery about her work, including her newest series Project 562, in which she's making portraits representing each of the federally recognized Native American tribes. When she started there were 562 tribes; there are now 566.
In introducing her talk, Wilbur - whose first name means "messenger" made it clear that she does not speak for all Indians. There is no such thing as a "pan-Indian," she said. "A lot of Indian people don't agree with me on a lot of issues."
But the media does promulgate an overriding image of the American Indian when the Indian is portrayed at all. Of thousands of films made, only a dozen or so featured Native American characters. And those characters are depicted either as impoverished or angry and at odds with mainstream society. When Indians were portrayed as werewolves in the "Twilight" movies, European tourists would knock on doors in Washington State reservations wanting to meet the "transforming" Indians.
Some people still ask Wilbur where her horse is.
These media projections of Indians, Wilbur said, strike at the core of young Indians' sense of self worth.
"The stereotypical representation of the American Indian is that we're beaten down by society, that we're noble savages, and that we don't deserve to be here, and the kids know that," Wilbur said. The desire to upend those perceptions is what drives her work.
Though her photographs have been exhibited extensively in museums including the Smithsonian, the Perrysburg show is her first in a gallery where her photographs are for sale. The money raised will help fund Project 562.
The show also includes images that play on standard depiction of Indians to expose deeper issues. One has a woman posed as an Indian maiden with ears of corn in front of the Seattle skyline - the city has risen from Indian land that is still disputed. Another has a model in buckskin in front of Seattle's public market, which despite being dedicated to local produce and goods, has nothing representing the land's original inhabitants.
Project 562 moves beyond the stereotypes to show how Indians now live, as professors, comedians and activists. She's traveled to the city centers and to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to visit Indians there.
Wilbur believes we may be on the cusp of change.
"We're at a unique place in history. It's been 300 years since contact," she said. "We are at a time right now where we can learn to build bridges, where we can share cultures with one another. We don't have to ostracize one another for being different. We can learn from one another, from each other's culture and that wasn't possible, I'm told, 50 years ago."
"Matika Wilbur: Indian Enough" is on display at the gallery through June 10.