This pair of photos is just one example in Border Crossings' exhibition Pocahontas and After, currently on show at Syon House in Brentford, until at least June 2nd. The exhibition - which people have been saying is as thought-provoking as it is visually stunning - represents the culmination of a sustained period of education and community work, beginning with the ORIGINS Festival last summer. During the Festival, we not only held a ceremony for three indigenous women to commemorate Pocahontas at Syon, where she had stayed in the summer of 1616: we also brought indigenous artists into direct contact with the diverse communities around the House, in the two Primary Schools where they led workshops and study sessions, in the wonderful CARAS refugee group, and through our network of committed and energetic festival volunteers. In the following months, a distilled group from each of these partners has been working closely with heritage experts from the archives, Native American cultural consultants, and our own artistic staff to explore the ways in which Native American people have been presented in the past.
Their journeys into the archives have been rich and challenging. What we think of as "realistic" photographs of indigenous people often turn out to be nothing of the kind. Edward Curtis, for example, apparently carried a chest of "authentic" costumes and props with him, which he used in his photographs to recreate the life of "the vanishing race" as he imagined it may have been in some pre-contact Romantic idyll. In other words, the archive photos are often about the photographer and the viewer, far more than they are about the subject.
As our volunteers came to realise this, they became more and more assertive of the need for agency in contemporary portraiture. Complex and fascinating decisions started to be made, placing the generation of meaning in the bodies of the people photographed. One subject, Inés Achabal, showed her tattooed back, with its macaws symbolising her home city of Caracas, in response to Curtis's "bon savage archetype" in his 1909 image of an Arikara girl. For an indigenous Samoan living in London, Sani Muliaumaseali'i, a 1914 image of a mask dancer from the Pacific North-West provided links to his own complex and multi-layered persona.
What I love about this exhibition is that the meaning generated does not reside in one image or the other within the pair - but is rather in the energising of the space between, the dialogue between past and present, between different cultures, between human beings portrayed in different ways. It seems to me to be at once of way of honouring the indigenous subjects portrayed in the archive photographs, and of reinventing the form that was often too reductive in its attempts to categorise them.
Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting this project. Photos from the British Library and the Library of Congress.