For curator Brenda Child, one photograph was all it took to inspire an entire exhibit. That image, a simple black-and-white capture of three Ojibwe singers at a Red Lake powwow in 1953, formed the basis of “Singing Our History: People and Places of Red Lake Nation,” opening Tuesday at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota.
The photograph was taken by Jerome Liebling, a New York-born, socially-minded artist who established the photography and film program at the U of M in 1949.
“So often, the way American Indians are photographed is, ‘Look, we’re being Native Americans!’” says Child, who teaches history and American Indian studies at the U of M. “Liebling’s photographs were nothing like that. They were so beautiful. He captured the everyday lives of Red Lake people.”
Though Liebling’s documentary-style photos are among the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, his work is not ubiquitous in the Red Lake community.
“The exhibit is based on the idea of bringing these photographs to the community for a new generation to see,” says Child.
Another photographer included in the exhibit is Milwaukee-born Charles Brill, the first U of M School of Journalism graduate to become a photojournalist. He spent a year photographing the Red Lake reservation through a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, and published the images in Indian and Free: A Contemporary Portrait of Life on a Chippewa Reservation in 1974 with the University of Minnesota Press.
“Brill had a much more sustained relationship with people,” Child says. “His photographs were very well-known in the community, and that book has been very popular since its publication.”
What makes Red Lake special is that it never moved to private ownership of property, or allotment, as other reservations did throughout the U.S. and Minnesota. As a result, the Red Lake community retains 800,000 acres of land and water, all held communally.
“It makes our story somewhat unique,” says Child, who is also Red Lake Ojibwe. “We weren’t removed. We didn’t lose our reservation land. Its boundaries were established in 1889 and we still own it together.”
The community is currently working on a new constitution, prompting reflection on the past, all of which makes this exhibit that much more relevant. To that end, “Singing Our History” will also include artwork by several Red Lake artists, including six paintings by Ojibwe watercolorist Patrick DesJarlait as well contemporary pieces by painter and digital artist Jonathan Thunder.
Child is gearing up for the opening reception for “Singing Our History,” which takes place on Saturday, and will include traditional drumming and Ojibwe food.
“We’re going to have a nice, fun, splashy exhibit at the University, but then all these photographs are going to Red Lake for a permanent installation,” she says. “Even though I’m emphasizing these tremendous artists, the whole idea of the exhibit is to celebrate the people and the landscape and the homeland of Red Lake.”
IF YOU GO:
"Singing Our History: People and Places of Red Lake Nation"
Through February 13
Katherine E. Nash Gallery
University of Minnesota
There will be an opening reception Saturday, January 23 from 6 to 9 p.m.