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2022: Contemporary Indigenous photography's breakout year

By Medicine Man Gallery on

'Speaking with Light' exhibition view. Courtesy the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

'Speaking with Light' exhibition view. Courtesy the Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Is this the “golden age” for contemporary Indigenous photography?

Yes and no.

Institutionally, it seems so. Museums have never displayed contemporary Indigenous photography with the spotlight or volume they are now. This extends well beyond museums traditionally exhibiting Native American or Western artwork.

Within the past year alone, Will Wilson (Diné) has had solo shows at museums in Delaware and Orlando. Tom Jones (Ho-Chunk) placed second in the prestigious Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, hosted every three years by the National Portrait Gallery. It is the nation’s highest honor for portraiture. He received a solo show at an art museum in his home state of Wisconsin. Wendy Red Star (Absáalooke) had an exhibition in New York state. A major group exhibition of contemporary Indigenous photography can be seen in Salt Lake City.

Cara Romero’s (Chemehuevi) photography headlines a group show of contemporary Indigenous artwork at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – the art world’s greatest stage in this country. Romero stands as contemporary Indigenous photography’s breakout figure. Her work was also featured in a group photography show this year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – the art world’s greatest stage for Modern and contemporary art anywhere. And at the prestigious Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

That only scratches the surface.

The most prominent example arguing in favor of this being a golden age for contemporary Indigenous photography comes from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. It’s “Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography” exhibition (through January 22, 2023) represents one of the first major museum surveys exploring the practices of Indigenous photographers working today.

On the other hand, the work has long been there. Contemporary Indigenous photography for decades has been making powerful statements and producing compelling work. Artistically, the late 2010s and early 2020s don’t represent a “golden age,” but a continuation.

'Speaking with Light' exhibition view. Courtesy the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

'Speaking with Light' exhibition view. Courtesy the Amon Carter Museum of American Art

“I would not call it a ‘golden age,’ but there certainly is more attention being paid to artworks being created by Indigenous artists in all media, and for good reason,” Amon Carter Museum Senior Curator of Photographs, and co-curator of “Speaking with Light,” John Rohrbach, said. “We have seen over these last three decades a blossoming of vibrant, diverse and challenging work being made by Indigenous artists across many cultures. ‘Speaking with Light’ recognizes this trend in photography.”

Rohrbach credits that “blossoming” with a shift occuring about thirty years ago, “from a more documentary use of the medium by Indigenous photographers to their employment of an increasingly sophisticated artistic vocabulary.”

That sophistication is evident in “Speaking with Light” and among all the artists mentioned here. Contemporary Indigenous photographers are exploring diverse lens-based practices spanning photography, video, three-dimensional media and digital interactives expressing their humor, insight and searing accusation.

"’Speaking with Light’ is a symbol of the vitality of contemporary Indigenous photography, acknowledging the diversity of Indigenous artists who are confronting the story of America with acuteness and passion,” Rohrbach said.

A story indeed.

“It’s certainly a moment, we’ll see if it lasts,” Wilson, who co-curated “Speaking with Light” alongside Rohrbach, said. “There was a similar moment in 1992, the quincentenary of Columbus’ arrival. James Luna, who’s gone now, he was this amazing performance artist and photographer who has a piece in the (‘Speaking with Light’) – Half Indian/Half Mexican – he was like, ‘call me in 1993.’”

In 1993, the attention waned. That doesn’t seem to be the case for 2023.

If 2022 represented a breakthrough for contemporary Indigenous photography in museum spaces, 2023 already appears equally as promising. The Minneapolis Institute of Art is planning a group exhibition even larger than the Amon Carter’s. Red Star has a solo show scheduled at the Columbus Museum of Art. More announcements are expected in coming weeks.

As recently as three or four years ago, any one of these presentations alone would have represented a milestone in representation for the genre. Now they’re coming in bunches. An overnight success three decades in the making.


'Speaking with Light' exhibition view. Courtesy the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

'Speaking with Light' exhibition view. Courtesy the Amon Carter Museum of American Art




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