Presented as part of the Capture Photography Festival. At Winsor Gallery until November 2
Dana Claxton’s new show of photographs is both gorgeous and thought-provoking—as it’s meant to be. Claxton has an uncanny ability to seduce the eye with the formal qualities of her art and then trouble the mind with its content. In Indian Candy, her ironically titled series of aluminum-mounted light-jet prints, she alters the appearance of archival documents and historical photographs by enlarging them, washing them in brilliant colours, and coating them with a high-gloss laminate. The result is as visually tasty as, yes, candy—a compelling strategy in asking us to reconsider enduring stereotypes of the North American “Indian”, especially in the context of “the Wild West”.
Among the images Claxton deploys are letters and souvenir cards relating to Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull, photographs of ancient petroglyphs in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, and ghostly-pale scans of Sioux clothing and footwear. She also reworks studio photos of Jay Silverheels, the Canadian-born Mohawk actor best known for playing Tonto in the 1950s TV series The Lone Ranger, and Maria Tallchief, an Osage tribal member who grew up on a reservation in Oklahoma during the 1920s and ’30s and later became a groundbreaking star of the New York City Ballet—“a dancer of electrifying passion and technical ability”, according to her April 12 obituary in the Washington Post.
In Claxton’s show, Tallchief is depicted as the epitome of “exotic” glamour and beauty in a jewelled turban topped with cascading ostrich plumes, the image printed here in pale turquoise and midnight blue. Tallchief’s headgear engages in witty repartee with Blue Headdress, an exaggeratedly pixelated image of an unnamed Plains man in a feathered headdress. It speaks to popular-culture notions of the Indian, the pixelations to the digital translation of the original photograph in posting it on the Internet. Claxton makes full and creative use of the vast archives that are accessible online.
Her images of Silverheels (who was born Harold J. Smith) are overlaid with Hollywood-style Indian-speak: “Tonto pray for you” and “You speak much but say nothing.” Here, Claxton arrests us not only with visual appeal (part of which, let’s be honest here, involves Silverheels’s good looks—the masculine equivalent of Tallchief’s beauty) but also with a sense of humour that ranges from wry to sarcastic.
Some of the historical materials she employs allude to W. F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the 19th-century American army scout, bison hunter, and—most famously—showman, and to Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief and holy man who, during the 1860s and ’70s, led a dedicated but ultimately futile war of resistance against the United States’ policies of westward expansion and conquest. That Sitting Bull later appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows is a huge irony, given that Cody had earlier scouted army expeditions during the Indian Wars and had also slaughtered vast numbers of bison, a sacred animal and essential food source for the Plains peoples.
The correspondence that Claxton has highlighted is revelatory, infuriating, and heartbreaking. Wild Red Envelope reproduces parts of a “confidential order”, from a Gen. Miles to Col. Cody, “to arrest the famous Sioux chief SITTING BULL, and deliver him to the nearest Commanding Officer of the U.S. Troops”. In Buffalo Bill Purple, Cody writes a long letter to the commissioner of Indian affairs in Washington, D.C., requesting that Sitting Bull travel with him through the East. “I have had a long experience with the management and care of Indians,” he declares.
As revealed in some of her earlier work, Sitting Bull figures briefly in Canadian history and significantly in Claxton’s family background. After the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, he and his followers sought refuge in this country, settling for a period at Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan. Although he returned to the U.S. in 1881, some of his people—some of Claxton’s ancestors—remained. (Although based in Vancouver for many years, Claxton grew up in Moose Jaw, and her family reserve is Wood Mountain First Nation.) One of the important aspects of her practice, however, is that the personal is also profoundly political. As she tells guest essayist Kathleen Ritter in the exhibition catalogue, research she and other aboriginal artists undertake often uncovers “the truths of Aboriginal experience buried under layers of official colonial history”.