New York

Elaine Reichek

Irony is readily apparent in Elaine Reichek’s “Native Intelligence,” an exhibition that juxtaposes Western images of Native American Indians and domestic crafts traditionally synonymous with “women’s work.” Among the many 19th-and 20th-century references to the indigenous cultures of the so-called New World Reichek employs are reproductions of historical photographs by Edward S. Curtis, who traveled the American West recording vanishing tribal life. Reichek presents objects in tandem (two-dimensional shapes of tepees in grainy black and white photographs with three-dimensional knitted tepee forms of Reichek’s own design and making) to establish parallels between types of “Others” and varying manifestations of oppression. The implications of such comparisons are less than immediate; one must be willing to trek beyond the familiar territories of multiculturalism and the subjugation of women to ask just what, and who, is oppressed.

Were Reichek content with a single expedient reading, it would suffice to say what we already know: both Indians and women have suffered the burden of exploitation. Suitably impressed, we could respond with appropriate reverence to their tragi-poetic bonding, and quickly have done with it. Reichek, however, is after something entirely different. It helps to know about Curtis’ photographs, which were taken as gospel ethnographic truth for nearly a century. Now, their documentary quality is exposed as the most problematic of fictions. Curtis routinely dressed his “primitive” subjects in whatever was at hand from his traveling trunk, to affect theatrical tableaux vivants. Tasteful kitsch, but kitsch nonetheless, that both satisfied the demands of the historical record and appeased the desire for images of Adam to counter the industrial-age malaise of his audience. In framing the fallaciousness of “documentary” photography, not to mention the function of nostalgia with respect to political histories,Reichek comments upon the accrued and associative meanings of “women’s work” as well.

Among many available interpretive options, Reichek suggests that our immunity to the manipulative power of Curtis’ images makes us undeservedly complacent about the conventional meanings of contemporary images. Consider, for example, efforts that flourished in the ’70s to empower the iconography of “women’s work” as a reflection of the entirety of “feminine” experience. In blindly accepting its purported authority, do we not substitute one romanticism for another, enshrining domestic objects as holy relics much in the way that Curtis enshrined images of “the noble savage”? The chink in the cultural patina of Curtis’ photographs prods our perception beyond a glorified nostalgia for “women’s work.” What do knitting and embroidery mean in 1992? In commerce, such handmade goods are imported from so-called third world countries, where economic exploitation is widespread. The references to the women’s work presented here are, from a political viewpoint, less expressive of a nostalgia for an idealized feminine community than emblematic of the confrontation of upper-class leisure activity with the disenfranchised classes who labor in sweatshop production lines.

Perhaps art can express unique truths, but only insofar as these truths are recognized as contingent upon how we use images. The more we look, the more there is to see of the relations between things and ourselves. To settle into complacency about those relations, seeing nothing more than what we already presuppose, would be to cut ourselves off not only from our past, but from our present. And to mistake “Native Intelligence” as limited to championing our feminist cause or paying homage to Native American Indians would be to fail to perceive the play Reichek initiates in her comparative methodology, a methodology in which the activity of giving meaning is self-consciously brought to the surface.

Jan Avgikos