On ViewSargent's Daughters
April 28-June 2, 2019
Ethnographer James Clifford has written extensively about the fallacy of the “salvage paradigm”—the anthropological romance with the preservation of the last traces of traditional peoples and cultures. The salvage paradigm is exemplified by Edward Curtis, whose highly romanticized photographs of the “vanishing race” of “the North American Indian” fixed Native Americans in the public imagination as doomed yet noble savages. Of course, as Clifford points out, while Native Americans were brutalized and their numbers decimated during the White colonization of America, they are by no means extinct. The descendants of Curtis’s subjects participate in a living culture shaped equally by tradition and contemporary society.
Artist Wendy Red Star belongs to the Crow tribe and was raised on a Apsáalooke reservation in Montana. Her work uses multiple strategies to take aim at the salvage paradigm. She has annotated photographs made by the US government during the post-Civil war treaty negotiations, staged natural history style museum dioramas of native life, inserting herself and a collection of stuffed and inflatable animals into scenes of traditional native life, and produced a hilarious set of reworked covers to a pulp fiction series titled White Squaw. The point is to highlight the disconnect between the reality and the popular fictions surrounding Native identity. As Red Star has remarked, “often times [non-Natives] think of us as unicorns, like we're these mystical creatures that don't really exist.”
Accession, her recent exhibition at Sargent’s Daughters, draws on her extensive research into archival materials collected in the 1940s and ’50s by the WorkForce Protection Act (WPA) to document the Crow Nation’s annual Crow Fair migration parade. The Crow Fair originated in 1904 as an opportunity for Crows who had been corralled into reservations to monetize their native crafts and agricultural products. It took hold because it offered the tribe a rare opportunity, at a time when the US government was restricting displays of Native culture, to practice their traditional rituals and celebrations. It remains a lively six-day event to this day.
While doing research at the Denver Art Museum, Red Star discovered a trove of WPA era catalogue cards that documented items of Crow clothing and other ceremonial objects. The hand colored images are quite beautiful, carefully replicating the abstracted patterns and colorful beadwork on leggings, harnesses, belts, and cloaks of the original objects. Red Star has matched these items with similar and in some cases nearly identical objects worn by participants in the 2018 Crow Fair. The works she has created from this convergence of old and new consist of reproductions of the catalogue card images juxtaposed with photographs of the parade participants wearing the analogous item. In each work, the card image looms over a traditionally dressed contemporary figure who appears on an equally beautifully costumed horse. Red Star has eliminated any background details, so that both the archival image and its present-day kin appear without context and out of time.
This abstraction encourages viewers to look closely at the images and to attempt to match the contemporary counterparts of the archival item. The juxtaposition emphasizes the continuity of traditions and the living nature of these archived items. However, the presentation also puts the focus on the formal aspects of these visually stunning designs. This leaves the viewer hungry for more context with respect to the significance and meanings of the patterns and objects and their place in Crow culture and life. Such information would underscore the living nature of objects too easily relegated to the exotic and romanticized past.