Zig Jackson, Camera in Face, Taos, New Mexico, 1992, ink-jet print, 14 1/4 × 19 1/2". From the series, “Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian,” 1991–92.

Zig Jackson, Camera in Face, Taos, New Mexico, 1992, ink-jet print, 14 1/4 × 19 1/2". From the series, “Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian,” 1991–92.

“Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy: Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star, and Will Wilson”

Zig Jackson, Camera in Face, Taos, New Mexico, 1992, ink-jet print, 14 1/4 × 19 1/2". From the series, “Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian,” 1991–92.

Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868–1952) gets a bad rap for a variety of imperialist sins: sentimentalizing his American Indian subjects by posing them in antiquated costumes, deleting signs of contemporary culture from his frames, accepting funding from the arch-capitalist magnate J. P. Morgan, and generally promulgating the romantic objectifications of the hegemonic, colonizing mind. However, a closer look at Curtis’s life and work makes this judgment hard to square. In addition to tirelessly documenting a vast population of marginalized people against the backdrop of genocide, he spent his life recording endangered indigenous languages, petitioning for American Indian rights, and arguing for natives’ religious freedom. He penned the first revisionist theory of the Battle of Little Bighorn (by a white man, anyway), with Custer, at last, cast as the true villain he was.

But Curtis remains controversial enough that the Portland Art Museum felt compelled to bracket his work, enlisting three contemporary native artists to provide a modern context for his legacy. In general, the gambit worked fine. Wendy Red Star, an Apsaalooké artist based in Portland, contributed Map of the Allotted Lands of the Crow Reservation Montana—A Tribute to Many Good Women, 2016, an impressive wall map of a Crow reservation in Montana decorated with images of women and children, alongside a wall of tribal names handwritten by the artist with her mother and sister, thereby injecting the inert cartographic document with the vitality of real human life. Navajo Nation–raised artist Will Wilson, who often uses old-fashioned large-format cameras to postapocalyptic ends, provided grungy, distressed tintype portraits of American Indians, the originals of which he gifted to his sitters. (Curtis didn’t make a practice of giving his pictures to his subjects.) And Zig Jackson, raised in North Dakota, presented projects that hit multiple clear notes, sometimes funny (portraits of the artist in public spaces wearing a headdress and posing next to a sign that says ENTERING ZIG’S INDIAN RESERVATION . . . NEW AGERS PROHIBITED) and sometimes achingly straightforward (subtle, intimate portraits of contemporary American Indians in their homes, surrounded by the everyday realities of their lives). Throughout the galleries, the curators also inserted educational stalls, or “sharing stations,” soliciting viewers’ opinions on index cards and prompting them to color in cartoon drawings of American Indians with crayons.

So, in the midst of all this, how did Curtis’s images look? Still luminous and very much of their time. The images of native architecture alone are incredible: The grass houses of the Wichita and the stucco pueblos of the Laguna speak at once of long evolutions of form—of an almost phylogenic building memory—and also of the idiosyncratic customizations of individual style and labor. The show additionally included volumes of Curtis’s magnum opus, The North American Indian (1907–30), as it was originally presented: a subscription-based series of bound books that remain gorgeous fetish objects of art-book publishing. And then there were Representative Types, a grouping of facial portraits of such warmth and detail that, assuming one could get past the criminally dehumanizing semantics of the title, gave the viewer the impression of peering directly into the eyes of lost uncles and mothers.

The Portland Art Museum has recently established a Center for Contemporary Native Art, which, concurrent to this exhibition, presented a show by two radical young artists, Demian DinéYazhi’ and Kali Spitzer, on the concept of American Indian “survivance.” The museum also has on permanent display (in slightly shabby, ethnographic vitrines) a collection of native artifacts that has been a staple of elementary school tours for eons. Maybe it’s the educational mandate of this regional museum (those coloring stations and index cards) that made “Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy” feel at once so interesting and so sadly compromised. This show of fine work and deeply good curatorial intentions nevertheless managed to seem, on some level, condescending to everyone involved—artists, subjects, and audience alike. Visitors aren’t offered crayons at other shows. Native artists speak on their own terms elsewhere in the museum. How awesome would it be to see Zig Jackson’s work like that?

Jon Raymond