Jimmie Nelson traveled worldwide to create this grand series of portraiture of indigenous people, published as a book for the project BEFORE THEY PASS AWAY, on exhibit at Galerie OstLicht, Vienna March-April 22. Luckily for those of us who might not make it to Vienna, the artist’s website has many of the prints.
As riveting as these portraits are, I want to add that work has meet with a great deal of controversy, and some have felt that the project misrepresents them, obscuring the fact that in fact they are not passing away, but rather struggling in an everyday context. Others see the work as connected the legacy of colonialist crimes. The text accompanying the photographer’s book is considered by many to be incorrect, if not offensive.
This saddens me for so many reasons, including being reminded that in every cultural sphere we see that native people continue to be excluded, made invisible, robbed and misrepresented.
However, I absolutely must say that without doubt the pictures are extraordinary. Without the offending text perhaps a completely different conversation would emerge. After all, participating in the formation of one’s one public image is key to true equity.
I wish for my part that life and history of native people of Saskatchewan where I would visit my grandmother as a child were actually visible, not so erased or obscured. To know more about the true Canadian people, more than the bitter homesteader’s memory of being ejected from property by the lake. Imagine 70 First Nations in Saskatchewan, living and being, and yet never seen or mentioned, just blank sky, not a soul in sight, blank expressions.
And by the lake, small handmade reliquary like structures, and no one willing tell me what they were, why they were there, why they meant something to our world.
Dismissive responses to questions about what these structures were: “Oh they were always there, I don’t know.”How is it that this only exists in my mind, and I do not know what it was?
Stephen Corry, Director , Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights says of the representation of native peoples is deeply problematic: The criminal, often genocidal, treatment of many tribal peoples remains underpinned by a portrayal eliciting from us little more than wistful pangs of history lost. Nothing wrong with nostalgia of course, but there’s a lot wrong with presenting crimes against humanity as just another historical inevitability, as natural and unstoppable as Canute’s rising tide
In no way do I dismiss these claims, or take lightly the words used in the book, or the way the contemporary issues that many people face are criminal and complex such as land theft, and development. Obscuring real history and the past has no part in a project like this, certainly. All the same, I rather wonder what the artists says about all of this. I also understand that the images are posed, something that has been heavily criticized yet this is artistry, and part of what makes the pictures stand put. Many of the people are depicted in the tradition of regal portraiture, an iconic figure of pride, and self assurance and so visually many ways, the photos are a positive representation of regional cultures.
One of the main points of criticism settles on problems of authorship, and it has been pointed out that the model of Curtis is connected to the way Nelson’s pictures are configured and understood. Corry mentions the removal of western items from Curtis’ photos of indigenous people, and the strangely vague titles like “brave” and “war party.” Do we see the removal of these items as part of the western romantic archaism connected to mythologies about the “noble savage?” The objection to Nelson’s narrative is primarily that these are not myths or stories, but living real people’s lives, many of whom do not have diminishing or exterminated populations, and whose life today is far from simple. The richness of these “passing” cultures is obscured by Nelson’s book presentation, and I do wish the really beautiful photos were originally accompanied by a discussion of historic culture, and contemporary life as well. And yet, it occurs to me, that perhaps, the “removal” of western or contemporary items is also a recognition of the destructive arm of consumerism, pollution, and expansion.
Nevertheless, it is amazing to see these startling pictures. The regal beauty of people from allover the world cannot be argued with, and many of the portraits stir viewers in the most wonderful of ways: one wishes to know more of this place, these people, their traditions, and what they experience today. I am particularly entranced by the noble pictures of the women. I use the world wonderful because the work itself really does bring forward questions about the people, not just perpetuate myths. There is so much distrust about the way the world looks at indigenous cultures, and most of it is well deserved. But genuine interest, in terms of both meaningful learning about culture and sharing in the promotion of justice does exist within the world, even in non native communities. And it should be said as well that the dialogue that has emerged is also vital to expanding advocacy as well as our understanding of contemporary indigenous culture and struggles.