THIS PHOTOGRAPHIC EXHIBITION presents an interesting dialogue between a European culture’s dissatisfaction with contemporary civilization and a Native American’s ironic response to it.
Andrea Robbins and Max Becher collaborated on a series of portraits titled, “German Indians,” in which German “Wannabees” are shown wearing detailed and elaborate Native American traditional clothing. These photos were taken at the annual two-day festival in Radebeul, Germany, near Dresden, to celebrate the birthday of Karl May. May was a popular 19th century German novelist who wrote wild-west novels portraying the Native Americans as heroes and the whites as villains. The political right, as exemplified by the Nazis, along with the anti-colonial left, has found May’s work ideologically useful. But to Zig Jackson, a Native American photographer who knows the White man speaks with forked tongue, both of these attitudes are irrelevant.
Robbins’ and Becher‘s photographs are high quality color prints, each one measuring 30” x 35” or so, and document the German “natives” in spectacular and extravagant garments that must have been made for the occasion. According to the gallery notes, these “Indians” organize themselves into loosely formed groups they call “tribes” and gather from all over the country for festivals.
Seeing them I was reminded of the pubs in the north of England that catered exclusively – on certain nights of the week – to “Wannabee” cowboys and cowgirls. These folks were also dressed in highly expensive boots and regalia, even to replica six-shooters. And there are the medieval “jousting” clubs. All of this makes one wonder at the great desire of those in the modern world to escape their historical time. It is definitely a desire that can be successfully encouraged by the market. If you can afford it, you can construct a new identity, a different history for yourself. We’re in the world of Pirandello here.
And there is good reason for the European’s nostalgic desire for a lost culture. Globalization has created a universal and identical middle-class that essentially consumes the same products. The other side of this story, however, is the real struggle of those envied and idealized peoples against a raging modernity seeking to swallow them up.
It has been said that United States society has never made a place for anyone who is not interested in accumulating wealth. Some Indian reservations have become vastly wealthy through the casinos operating on their land, and because of this, tribes, such as the Pequot in Connecticutt and the Seminoles in Florida, are swiftly losing their culture to a foreign, middle-class lifestyle. Standing firm against this possibility, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the Lakota Sioux have continued to refuse to touch a penny of the $500 million (and rising) settlement the U.S. court system awarded them in 1980 as “payment” for the illegal appropriation of the sacred Black Hills. They also reject the culture of casinos and maintain all their traditional ways. This has resulted in economic poverty with its many hardships, but is an almost unparalleled example of the refusal of a culture to bow to the invader’s rules. “For as long as we don’t touch the money, White America will never own the Black Hills.”
Zig Jackson, or Rising Buffalo, his Indian name, is a full blood who was raised on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Although he has studied art forms as diverse as drawing, painting and jewelry making, since receiving a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute, he has concentrated on photography as a medium to create a body of work about Indian identity.
The photographs on display here fall into three categories. The first category consists of documentary photographs taken on various reservations. The second is the “Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian” series of five, in which Jackson photographs various tourists at different events, recording the action of White people sticking a camera up to the face of an exotic object to be viewed: a traditionally dressed Indian. Another group is made up of self-portraits: the Indian photographer photographs himself wearing a traditional feather headdress. Half of these recount a story of Jackson walking the streets of San Francisco, collectively titled, “The Indian Man in San Francisco”. The others show him in the same dress standing next to a road sign he has constructed which reads:
Zig’s Indian Reservation
Open range cattle on highway
No Picture Taking
No Air Traffic
New Agers Prohibited
without Permission From Tribal Council
In this last series, by photographing himself next to the sign in different locations, for example, the Golden Gate Bridge, City Hall of San Francisco and Golden Gate Park, Jackson is here re-appropriating his ancestral lands. These photographs remind me of the photographs, also using signs, made by the Indian artist, Edgar Heap of Birds, recently shown in the Venice Biennale. The photographs by Heap of Birds are in color and the signs in the images, bearing a similarly ironic content, appear to have been expensively constructed and officially sanctioned, through funding perhaps. But I prefer Jackson’s simpler black and white photographs that include his own presence, along with the less polished look of the sign he has made. They seem to have a subversive integrity.
It has been often stated that indigenous people do not want to be photographed because “photography steals the soul”. Maybe Zig Jackson’s choice of photography as his art form can be seen as one Indian’s comment on the soul of White America.
Red Gallery is at 201 E. Broughton St.