Kimowan Metchewais: A Kind of Prayer
Both a photobook and a scholarly publication, this book is an expression of something that lies beyond analysis of the physical world.
Measuring just under 8 by 11 inches, Aperture’s recently released monograph of the work of Cree artist Kimowan Metchewais (1963–2011) is covered in royal purple cloth reminiscent of the outer layer of a diary or journal. At the center of the front cover is a matte reproduction of a self-portrait of the artist, an image made from two Polaroids that were taped together, as though he preferred certain aspects of each photograph and felt the need to stitch them. The cut edges of the images are visible, as they are not perfectly aligned, the DIY editing of which gives the self-portrait an intentionally destabilizing effect. Standing in front of a white wall, Metchewais is faced toward the viewer but seems to look past the camera’s lens as though lost in thought, his arm raised to ensure that the long, glistening hair piece he wears does not touch the floor. This striking image sets the tone for a monograph that is both a photobook and a scholarly publication but, as its subtitle suggests, also an expression of something that lies beyond analysis of the physical world.
Kimowan Metchewais: A Kind of Prayer is edited and designed to honor the poetics that distinguished the artist’s multi-disciplinary practice. Color reproductions in the monograph do not appear in chronological order but instead are placed in relation to one another, highlighting how Metchewais tended to carry ideas over space and time, regularly bridging different experiences and periods of his life. For example, a 2010 mixed media photocollage showing the art department van of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he taught, with a closeup of UNC basketballs stamped with the school’s insignia is placed across the page from a 2005 mixed-media photo collage showing abandoned furniture taken in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Metchewais belonged to the Cold Lake First Nations, whose territory lies 183 miles northeast of the city, and shuttled between the US and Canada after leaving to attend art school in New Mexico. Ledger paper forms a backdrop to both scenes, a reference to the materials that Indigenous prisoners of war used to create drawings in the late 1800s. In an essay by the artist that appears in the book, he describes this type of historic art as illustrating, “memory, fantasy, and desire,” while offering lessons on how to “persist with beauty and resist with grace.” Metchewais’s regular use of this paper acts as a metaphysical portal in his work, one that allowed him to move freely, albeit gently and methodically, between multiple registers of experience, culture, and history.
Of the artworks highlighted in the book, more than one hundred are drawn from an impressive archive of Polaroids that he left to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Many of these images served as studies for additional works in different media or were arranged to form a larger installation; some, however, can also be viewed as standalone images. In Marlboro Indian (2000), a collage made from four Polaroids, Metchewais stands in different poses. Composed as a two-by-two grid, each one is a variation of another: he appears shirtless and smoking in three of the photographs, wears a cowboy hat in all but one, and dons sunglasses in only the first image clockwise from the top. The sepia tone of the Polaroids, presumably achieved through his manipulation of the light in the room, makes these self-portraits look aged while also invoking the dramatic lighting that Richard Prince zeroed in on in photographs of 1980s cigarette ads. Prince’s appropriation of this imagery, which he described as tapping into the American public’s “wishful thinking,” appears to serve as a reference point for Metchewais’s noirish scenes. Whereas the reference images depict a White cowboy in an expansive, vacant landscape, here the Indigenous artist reenacts the ad’s aloof, hyper masculine posturing while posing in what appears to be his studio. In the Polaroid placed at the upper right side of the grid, a closeup of the artist shows him inhaling while holding a picture of two tobacco leaves in front of his bare chest, a symbolic stand in for his own lungs weathered by illness. The leaves are similar in tint to the lighting that gives the Polaroids their amber glow, yet another example of the artist’s intentionality.
At the bottom of the collage, Metchewais annotated the work in pencil then half haphazardly erased it before writing “MARLBORO INDIAN.” To the right of this text is a note, perhaps the work’s subtitle, that reads: “A Tobacco Story from N.C.” His reference to the state’s history of tobacco farming forms a direct line to the 1980s ad campaign’s glorified images of settler colonialism. Displacing the state’s Native American communities, which were later devastated by a smallpox epidemic, European colonists gained wealth and social status via tobacco crops cultivated with slave labor. Marlboro Indian also points to the lack of self-reflexivity that can be found in “canonical” works like Prince’s “Cowboys” series, which only extends a critical eye to mass consumption of images and the sway of advertisements, not the exploitation and genocide from which so much of this historic imagery was constructed. Interventions like Metchewais’s, in which the artist uses text or visual references to uncover layers of history, memory, and identity are a frequent part of the narrative arc that underwrites his work.
Alongside Metchewais’s 2009 essay “In Search of Live Relics in Cold Lake,” in which he outlines the material and conceptual aspects of his art and the recurring themes and signs that allow him to move between “the dream to the analysis of the dream,” are a series of essays that situate his work within the larger discourse of contemporary art. Photographer Jeff Whetstone, a former colleague at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offers an intimate account of how Metchewais photographed people, places, and objects like an investigator at a crime scene or an archeologist, drawing inspiration from his Indigeneity and working reflectively as he pieced together “evidence.” Emily Moazami, the assistant head archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian, explores various aspects of the massive body of work that he left to the institution, and how these images intervene in the history of photography by countering the colonial lens through which Indigenous peoples have been depicted. The book’s final essay is by Christopher T. Green, a scholar who situates Metchewais’s work within the broader history of Indigenous art in the US and Canada, noting that he moved from analog photography to digital spaces, including YouTube, an online blog, and social media. Although each text illuminates the life and work of the artist in different ways, all are in agreement that Metchewais will continue to travel between realms through his laden imagery.