Cold Conversations: Jeff Thomas reframes First Nations culture

Jeff Thomas: Plate – 7 Acts of Commemoration(2010). All images pigment prints on archival paper. Images courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto.Jeff Thomas: Plate – 7 Acts of Commemoration (2010). All images pigment prints on archival paper. Images courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto.

Essay by Krystina Mierins

Canadian First Nations photographer Jeff Thomas creates bodies of work that can be understood as ongoing "conversations". Recently, excerpts from these conversations were exhibited in Mapping Iroquoia: Cold City Frieze at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton and Resistance is Not Futile at Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto. Thomas’s dialogic approach can be seen in his installation of photographs that humanize and anthropomorphize sculptures and figurines, and more explicitly in his engagement with the archival material of American photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952).

Jeff Thomas: Plate – 8 Who Was Kunuh-Kananu (Bear’s Belly)? (2001).Jeff Thomas: Plate – 8 Who Was Kunuh-Kananu (Bear’s Belly)? (2001).The work in these shows developed out of a creative long-term project to answer Thomas’s question: “What kind of Indian am I?” This is partially answered with the term “urban-Iroquois“, coined by Thomas to name his experience of growing up in a city, which does not fit the stereotype that all native people live on reserves. The question is further explored in works engaging with historical and contemporary perspectives that have influenced the frame of reference from which Thomas works.

Thomas’s interest in Curtis’s historical work led to a move to Ottawa in the early 1980s so he could conduct research at Library and Archives Canada, which houses The North American Indian, 20 volumes of photography that attempt to document First Peoples’ cultures. For Resistance is Not Futile, Thomas created images that respond to those of Curtis. The work of the two photographers is shown together within the same frame, creating a dialogue. This dialogue is made literal in “interview” texts in which Thomas uses quotations from Curtis as responses to his own questions.

By placing his photographs alongside those of Curtis, Thomas establishes relationships between the subjects while also emphasizing the (dis)connections in time and place. Plate – 8 Who Was Kunuh-Kananu (Bear’s Belly)? (2001) shows Curtis’ half-length portrait of a man wearing an impressive bearskin that covers his head and wraps around his shoulders, his gaze extending beyond the photographer. This is placed to the left of Thomas’s colour image of a poster announcing the exhibition Edward S. Curtis: L’Indien d’Amerique du Nord, which appeared at the Musée de l’Elysée Lausanne in 2001. Below the two images are Curtis’s words: “Bear’s Belly, Arikara name is Kunuh-Kananw, born in 1847 at Fort Clark in present day North Dakota.” This text highlights the documentary facet of Curtis’s project, which does not create space for the sitter to present his own perspective on the context in which he has been placed. The exhibition advertisement dislocates and re-contextualizes Bear’s Belly geographically, culturally and temporally while drawing little attention to this fact in a world where marketing is ubiquitous.

eff Thomas: Plate – 9 Wabudi-sapa (Black Eagle) and Kevin Haywahe: Two Assiniboine Men (1991)Jeff Thomas: Plate – 9 Wabudi-sapa (Black Eagle) and Kevin Haywahe: Two Assiniboine Men (1991)In Acts of Commemoration (2010), Thomas places two of his photographs on either side of Curtis’s image of three men. To the right is the Champlain monument on Nepean Point behind the National Gallery of Canada. This impressive reminder of the colonization of Canada raises Champlain high above the ground, looking out over the Ottawa River. Champlain’s form echoes that of one of the Crow men in the central photograph; both seem to raise their right arms in a gesture of reverence towards the powerful equestrian portrait of an unnamed person in the left panel. They each elevate an object that demonstrates their distinct worldviews: Champlain grasps an astrolabe while the First Person raises an arrow. This triptych is accompanied by a quotation from Curtis: “…While primarily a photographer, I do not see or think photographically; hence the story of Indian life will not be told in microscopic detail, but rather will be presented as a broad and luminous picture.” The interaction amongst the images does not reveal cultural minutiae, but does present a different dynamic in the historical relationship in which both the colonizer and the Crow men revere the unnamed equestrian.

Thomas curated Mapping Iroquoia: Cold City Frieze utilizing the colonial tool of the map to re-inscribe the First Peoples’ presence, which has often been subjected to an almost complete erasure. The earliest works in this show are from 1992, the five-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery of the New World’. That year, Thomas set out on a journey to subvert the idea of the ‘New World’ by using photography to document the indigenous perspective. Instead, he found that this point of view had been silenced. Shortly after this trip, Thomas was told about the Champlain monument in Ottawa. At the base of this sculpture, an inaccurate depiction shows a First Nations person kneeling. Using photography, Thomas humanizes and ennobles this unknown individual. Since then, he has travelled across North America seeking to photograph and re-present depictions of nameless and stereotyped First People.

“Sightseeing” (1990-2010), a grouping of these photographs, was installed on the opposing wall of the Mapping Iroquoia exhibition, thus establishing a dialogic relationship between the monument in Ottawa and the objects of sightseeing tours scattered across the continent. Although each photograph in the grouping is a distinct work, the installation establishes an interaction among the subjects and contexts.

Jeff Thomas: Mapping Iroquoia: Cold City Frieze (installation view at the McMaster Museum of Art, 2012-13).Jeff Thomas: Mapping Iroquoia: Cold City Frieze (installation view at the McMaster Museum of Art, 2012-13).One “Sightseeing” image shows a reproduction of a Paul Kane painting on the hoarding outside the Royal Ontario Museum during the 2006-07 construction of the Lee-Chin Crystal. This is one of only a few two-dimensional depictions included in the grouping that re-presents stereotypical depictions of First Peoples. Thousands of people walked past this temporary wall during the Crystal’s construction, but few probably stopped to consider the image. Thomas’s framing juxtaposes Kane’s historical perspective on First Peoples in juxtaposition with a neo-classical structure in downtown Toronto. This image becomes particularly poignant in light of Thomas’s work to elucidate what it means to be urban-Iroquois.

A second conversation between the contemporary and the historical took place on the other two opposing walls. Prints of John Verelst’s 18th Century portraits of two of the four Kings of the Iroquois Confederacy, who were also members of the Red Robe Society, are hung alongside historical maps. Across from this is a selection from the Red Robe series (2004-09) for which Thomas used a small ‘Indian’ figurine that he has photographed in various geographical and cultural settings as part of his project to re-insert a First People’s presence. There is an amusing and playful quality to these works, but they warrant deeper consideration of Red Robe’s placement in colonized landscapes and alongside tools of colonization, such as trains and government buildings.

An image of Red Robe in London, England is one of a series in which Thomas tried to find locations that the Four Kings of the Iroquois Confederacy might have visited when they travelled to see Queen Anne in 1710. The contemporary onlookers, who appear to be amused and bemused, cause one to wonder how the First Nations People would have been received at the beginning of the 18th Century.

The Delegate, North American Indian, Ottawa, Ontario.: Jeff Thomas: The Delegate, North American Indian, Ottawa, Ontario. From the series “Indians on Tour” (2005). Chromogenic print.Jeff Thomas: The Delegate, North American Indian, Ottawa, Ontario. From the series “Indians on Tour” (2005). Chromogenic print.

In an effort to actively engage his audience at the McMaster Museum of Art, Thomas offered felt-tip markers alongside two artworks with the invitation to leave one’s mark and “engage in new conversations.” Home/land & Security Wampum Panel and Cold City Frieze Wampum Panel each feature several photographs arranged in a form that emulates the Hiawatha wampum belt, a peace agreement amongst the five original nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Thomas’s generous invitation prompts feelings of discomfort for two reasons. First, it is deeply engrained in museum visitors that they should not touch the art, let alone write on it with permanent marker. Secondly, the significance of the Hiawatha wampum belt caused any mark that might be made seem sacrilegious. (After careful consideration, I was able to leave a small mark on one of the panels.)

Unfortunately, Thomas’ inclusive approach was not appreciated by all audience members; one can only assume they did not take the time to understand what the artist was offering to them. Some took this opportunity to make offensive marks that led the museum to ask if it could remove these components. Thomas preferred that they remain part of the show and they were ultimately re-installed, falling to the floor below re-printed wampum panels. However, the markers were removed, ending any further audience participation.

If one considers the two exhibitions’ conversations as moving beyond the limits of their respective galleries and engaging with each other, the discussion becomes more complex. The works that engage with Curtis point to a historical perspective balancing between conventions and individualization, while the re-presentations of stereotyped unknown people in Mapping Iroquoia connect with a different, more limited perspective. Those able to view both conversations will gain a more nuanced picture of the players who were creating the historical representations, and the context that this has created for Thomas’ work.

Jeff Thomas’s Mapping Iroquoia: Cold City Frieze exhibition appeared at the McMaster Museum of Art from November 15, 2012 to January 12, 2013. The exhibition Resistance is Not Futile appeared at Stephen Bulger Gallery from December 2, 2012 to January 19, 2013.

Krystina Mierins completed her MA in Art History before working in the architecture department at the Carnegie Museum of Art. She has also worked at the Carleton University Art Gallery and the McMaster Museum of Art. She is now an independent writer based in Toronto, and her writing has appeared in publications such as Border Crossings, Artillery and Ornamentum.