Reservation Stories at the Jonson Gallery
By Steven Robert Allen
Even out here in the heart of Indian Country, a lot of people harbor garishly distorted ideas about Native Americans. Albuquerque might be sandwiched between two Pueblo reservations, but for many Anglos knowledge of Native America begins and ends with buying slabs of fry bread at the State Fair and maybe the occasional fake arrowhead crudely mass-produced in some factory south of the border.
Decades of misconceptions promoted in Hollywood, TV land and the rest of our dominant popular culture make this kind of ignorance inevitable. It's no wonder that many of us carry around ridiculous contradictory stereotypes of Indians as either New Age spiritualists occupying an astral plane well beyond our reach or hopelessly poor drunks too far down the social ladder to be worthy of concern.
Zig Jackson has spent his impressive career as a photographer subverting and correcting mainstream stereotypes about Native Americans. Of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara descent, Jackson was raised on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota and is a graduate of both UNM and the San Francisco Art Institute. He is currently professor of photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.
Over the years, his photographs have helped illuminate issues of tribal sovereignty and land rights. His work has confronted deeply held negative stereotypes that Native America is characterized entirely by gambling and alcoholism. His photographs have also served as subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle weapons against the ongoing commodification of Indian culture by mainstream America.
Much of his work is, in his own words, "politically charged," exploring the thornier aspects of the Native American condition in non-Native America. Curated by Chip Ware, a new exhibit of Jackson's images currently running at UNM's Jonson Gallery focuses on various perspectives of Indian reservations. Throughout the show, his black and white photographs are understated commentaries on modern Native America.
Many of these scenes will be familiar to Albuquerque viewers, although the context of the exhibit reveals them in a new light. "Bring Your Camera, I-40, New Mexico," for example, depicts an interstate sign three miles from the Arizona border. "Entering Arizona & Indian Country," it says, "Beautiful Scenic Area, Bring Your Camera's" (sic). A barbed wire fence in the foreground encloses both the sign and the looming mesa in the background.
Another piece, "Take a Picture of the Indian/Take a Picture with the Indian, Cherokee, North Carolina," expands on this theme. A diptych depicts an elderly Native American in a feathered headdress. In the first image, he stands in front of some kind of store by himself. In the adjoining image, he's surrounded by two Anglo kids dressed up in Indian costumes. This is a particularly disturbing piece. For one thing, the old guy looks distinctly miserable and embarrassed. On a more abstract level, the diptych, along with several other images in the show, illustrates how the camera itself, Jackson's own artistic weapon of choice, has functioned as a tool of Native American humiliation for too long.
Other photographs emphasize the dignity of Indian life. The finest example might be "Crow Woman on Horse, Crow Agency, Montana," which depicts a woman on horseback trotting through a gray drizzle during some kind of fair. She holds an umbrella to shield her traditional clothes from the rain. It's a simple image possessed of simple beauty.
Quite a large number of photographs in Jackson's exhibit depict signs—signs selling moccasins "for the entire family," signs marking reservation boundaries, signs marking the graves of Native American heroes, signs relating tragic or celebrated events in Indian history. Jackson's signage seems like a taunt directed at those people whose primary experience of Native America comes from zipping through a reservation on an interstate, pausing only to snap a few quick pictures of "real Indians," then quickly hopping back into the safety of their cars.
The greatest strength of Reservation Stories is that Jackson forces us to consider Indian life from both the inside and the outside. In some photographs, he looks at the world through our eyes. In others, he forces us to look through his.
Reservation Stories, an exhibit featuring photographs by Zig Jackson, runs through March 4 at UNM's Jonson Gallery (1909 Las Lomas NE). 277-4967.
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