BY Niru Ratnam in Reviews | 03 MAR 99
Featured in
Issue 45

Native Nations: Journeys in American Photography

BY Niru Ratnam in Reviews | 03 MAR 99

Four or five photographs by Aby Warburg in 'Native Nations: Journeys in American Photography', curated by Jane Alison, highlight the dilemma of such an exhibition. Shot in 1896, each is an informal snapshot of Hopi and Navajo Native Americans relaxing and smiling, and in one, (A Hopi Dancer) Warburg, obviously pleased with himself, can be seen behind a Hopi dancer. The dilemma is a straightforward one: these photographs, taken by Western settlers (as are all the works in the first part of the exhibition), reflect a situation that is intrinsically wrong. All the images were produced within the discourses of ethnology and anthropology and re-situating them as art - never mind how aesthetically pleasing they are - invites accusations of a high-handed Western viewpoint that ignores the near-genocide occurring during these years, when Native Americans were alternately dispossessed, killed or re-housed on reservations.

The curator's response to this dilemma is to devote the second half of the exhibition - which is separated from the first by the Barbican's stairway - to Native American photographers and artists 'talking back' to the white photographers upstairs. Attempting to reclaim authorship and undermine the Western gaze, the 19th century portraits by Jennie Ross Cobb, Richard Throssel and Dugan Aguilar reveal a spirit similar to that of the recent show 'Africa by Herself' in Paris. Later artists such as Shelley Niro and Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie make more didactic points about the treatment of Native Americans, in Tsinhnahjinnie's case through some fairly blunt text pieces.

Whilst this curatorial strategy is understandable, it forecloses the complexities of the settler photographs, images that attest to changing attitudes towards Native Americans. Early, straightforward ethnological images give way to pictures of assimilation. Francis Benjamin Johnston's Class in American History (1899), for example, shows a class of assimilated Native American and African-American children examining a traditionally dressed Native American man. Other images include before and after shots of Native American children sent away to Westernising boarding schools, and pictures filled with nostalgia for the indigenous way of life, as Native Americans, considered harmless curiosities, became considered fit subjects for calling-card illustrations and lantern-slides.

In between this narrative of surveillance, conquering, classification and fetishism there are, arguably, enough disjunctures to render the 'talking back' section unnecessary. James Mooney's own shadow reaching out across the image entitled Mescal Gathering (1892), Warburg's snapshots of relaxed subjects, and Kate Cory's photographs of Native Americans actively doing day-to-day things (as opposed to sitting mute, positioned, unsmiling and spoken for), are all images that fracture the stereotypical settler/subject, Native/object relationship.

Significantly, the two rooms that seem to embarrass the curator most are the photographs by Edward S. Curtis, which are stuffed at the end of the upstairs section. Between 1907 and 1930 Curtis set out to photograph every single Native North American, convinced that they were a dying breed. The result of his endeavours was the 20-volume publication The North American Indian (1907-30). The two rooms devoted to Curtis contain photographs selected from this book - all are sepia-toned, deeply romanticised images of Native Americans, often over-dramatically juxtaposed with a stark landscape. Curtis' obsessive, manic quest, even in this foreshortened presentation seems a task driven by the most acute narcissism - an endless search for complete understanding of the other in order to justify one's own presence and subjecthood. To dismiss Curtis as 'mistaken' (as the wall-texts do) is too simple - it is his compulsive and ultimately frustrated need to totally possess the other that underwrites and destabilises the first part of the exhibition.

The catalogue tells us that the two sections form 'inseparable parts of the same story'. Well, no. Perhaps the first part is all too open to misinterpretation, and yes, it may seem wilfully perverse to concentrate on the ambiguous relationships between settlers and natives when the wider issue is genocide. Nevertheless neat divisions into goodies and baddies, like Cowboy-and-Indian films, never tell more than part of the story.