October 13, 2010

Photos challenge Native stereotypes

Taking ownership:  Exhibit explores the exploitation of Native American stereotypes

By Leon Grodski de BarreraWhether it was intentional or not, [Columbus] initiated one of the longest lasting and most successful PR campaigns in history, that of the dehumanization of indigenous people. With the goals of conquest, riches and spices, Columbus played upon the racism and greed of the king and queen of Spain, the members of his crew and the throngs of conquistadors who followed in his wake. Invisibility and marginalization of indigenous people paved the way for their projects.

From the first mention of contact in his journal from the first voyage, Columbus portrays the people—whom he calls “Indians,” thinking he is in India—as at once noble and empty, deft guides and ready-made slaves for the king and queen of Spain. Columbus weaves these ideas prominently through his journal, and this legacy, this habit of mind continues as a prominent thread in the fabric of greater American society to this day, more than 500 years later.

In “Reclaiming Cultural Ownership: Challenging Indian Stereotypes,” Shan Goshorn is determined to reclaim cultural ownership for Native Americans. In her artist statement, Ms. Goshorn, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, said, “History has proven that a way to successfully eliminate a people is to deny them their culture. We remember the obvious attempts of boarding school practices, but we can equate racist commercialism as an attempted genocide as well.”

Goshorn has created an art installation that draws a direct contrast between racist commercialism that necessitates the invisibility of Native Americans within greater American culture and photographs of the everyday lives of people of different tribes as seen through the artist’s eyes.

When entering the gallery, one is immediately struck by the dramatic contrast between the varied and colorful commercial objects presented on several pedestals inside glass cubes that are thoughtfully situated throughout the floor space. These objects employ Native stereotypes and appropriate Native names to sell goods and services neither owned by nor representative of Native Americans. Goshorn presents her black and white photographs, taken through the 1990s, one next to the other at eye level completely lining the room. It’s almost as if they are surrounding the colorful and seductive lies of commercialism with a black and white look at and affirmation of everyday life of native people today.
Goshorn's point:As the black and white images show, none of these stereotypes have much to do with Native Americans as they really are and the contrast of the characterization of “Indians” with the multiplicity of real lives as seen in the photographs draws this to mind.Comment:  This exhibit sounds like a good way to make people think about Native stereotypes. Which they might not do if they saw only a collection of images and objects. Putting the photographs around the room as if they're staring coaxes people to compare the stereotypes with reality.

Also note that writer Leon Grodski de Barrera makes the same point I did in Why We Believe in Columbus. Namely, that Columbus started the myth-making process still at work today. That he did so to dehumanize the Indians so European Christians could justify their crimes.

For more on the subject, see "Take a Picture with a Real Indian" and Why People Don't Care About Indians.

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