Black Hawk Motel by Tom Jones
"I'm an Indian first and an artist second," writes Ho-Chunk photographer Tom Jones in a statement that accompanies his exhibit, "Indian First: Identity, Appropriation, and Reclamation," now on view at All My Relations Gallery. The solo exhibition is quite unlike anything seen before at the space, and showcases Jones's keen eye for color and shape with strong message against what he calls "post-racial" discourse.
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In his statement, Jones speaks to a cultural trend by artists who identify as Native American, but who deny their cultural background in the work they produce. He calls this a form of "identity genocide." Indeed, his work is about reclaiming Native identity, as well as criticizing Western culture's theft of Native imagery.
The show consists of two different series of photographic works. The front room mainly contains abstract pieces that have been created from scans of the bottom of plastic toy Indian stands. One wouldn't be able to tell what the shapes represented if they didn't find out from the gallery signage. The scans simply look like colorful shapes, carefully arranged to create beautiful patterns. However, the knowledge of how the images were created informs how to interpret these pieces. Viewed from "below," we cannot see the toys fighting one another, but rather only observe their footprint.
Yellow Stripe for example, contains three shapes that look like they could be the bottoms of canoes. Two are gray and one is yellow. The bottoms of the toy pieces, even as their shapes suggests the Native American archetype of the canoe, illustrate the commoditization of Native culture as a stereotype.
These works both stand on their own as eye-catching, absorbing pieces. In the Red features a series of red circles on one side of the photograph, what looks like fencing on the other, and some other object in the center. It's a striking image on its own, and also offers a metaphor for Native identity being encaged by popular culture.
Often in these works the photographs are so detailed that you can actually see the imperfections in the plastic, as well as the labels on the bottoms of the toys. In A New Landscape, for instance, you see the label "Plastimarx Mexico." It's both a clue as to how the pieces were created, and a statement about the cheapness of the materials that still inundates American culture.
The back half of the exhibition space contains multiple photographs that capture incidents of Native appropriation. Motels, indoor pools, and various tourist attractions utilize gross Native American stereotypes and words like "Chippewa," "Black Hawk," and "Indian." The photographs juxtapose these stereotypical images with the inevitable signs of consumer culture -- pop machines, credit-card signs, and so forth.
In Chippewa, Jones captures the image of a sign with "Chippewa" in large letters above the words "Indoor Pool," "Sauna," and "Whirlpool" beneath. Above the sign is a stereotypical image of a Native man's bust, complete with feather headdress. There are many images of this sort in the show. Perhaps one of the most poignant is the image of a totem pole, most likely constructed by a white artist, that stands in front of two soda machines, a picture of Aquafina on one and Dr. Pepper on the other. The image demonstrates how distorted some of these appropriated images can be, especially when they are used to sell merchandise.