Listening to Will Wilson’s Portraits

Three visitors were standing in front of Will Wilson’s three photographs in the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) on Saturday, staring so persistently at the images that I found myself nearly elbowing them to get a view. Once before the photos, I understood the crowd — the portraits created by Wilson, a Diné (Navajo) artist born in 1969, felt almost liquid in their spectral grays interlacing to form the wrinkles of old hands, the pattern of curled hair, the pout of lips. Wilson’s images of Enoch Kelly Haney, Ann Marie Woolworth, and Brielle Turney have captured reality, only to later well it up like a dream.

The photographs are on display in Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art (PNGB), the most recent exhibition to open at the YUAG and the institution’s first major show to concentrate on Native art. PNGB was curated by three recent graduates — Katherine Nova McCleary (Little Shell Chippewa–Cree), GH ’18, and Leah Tamar Shrestinian, MC ’18, with Joseph Zordan (Bad River Ojibwe), ES ’19 — who began the project during their time at Yale.

This is a radically simplified origin story; the expanded version begins in the fall of 2015, as a tidal wave of student activism responded to a series of controversies, including the renaming of Grace Hopper College and Professor Erika Christakis’s letter on cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes. The YUAG and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, acknowledging the movement, launched the Native American Art Initiative Internship in 2016, a position awarded to McCleary and Shrestinian. That fall, Laurence Kanter, the chief curator of the YUAG, reached out to them about formulating an exhibition. McCleary and Shrestinian tapped Zordan in turn, and the three began to work on PNGB.

These questions of revising history, reformulating narratives, and granting marginalized voices also figure crucially into Wilson’s photographs. They’re the products of the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX), a project launched by Wilson in 2012. Its goal, in his words, is to “supplant” the work of Edward Curtis, a settler photographer who took portraits of Indigenous people. The North American Indian, his monumental portfolio, contains more than 40,000 individual photographs; while among the most significant settler records of Indigenous culture, its creation was predicated on the photographer’s belief that Indigenous Americans were “a vanishing race.” Primed by this romanticization, Curtis frequently altered the appearance of his sitters to be legibly “Indian,” often by posing individuals in headdresses either obsolete or infrequently worn.

A preemptive nostalgia for societies under the threat of elimination — this is precisely what Wilson overturns in CIPX, by “resum[ing] the documentary mission of Curtis from the standpoint of a 21st century indigenous, trans-customary, cultural practitioner.” The artists’ continuity is demonstrated materially, as Wilson chose to work in the same medium as Curtis: wet-plate collodion photography. The 19th century technique is both intensive (an aluminum sheet must be primed with multiple chemical layers before exposure and a portable darkroom used to develop the image) and time-sensitive (in order to work, the entire process cannot span more than 15 minutes).

Today wet-plate collodion photography is, unsurprisingly, scarce, enabling the materialization of Wilson’s three figures in PNGB to serve as a bait-and-switch: their initial perceived age soon deteriorates into their present reality. Unlike in Curtis’s images, each subject has chosen their own pose and clothing, has written their own caption, and has been gifted the aluminum plate — the reproductions we see in the YUAG exhibition are archival pigment prints from a high-resolution scan of the original, on loan from the Beinecke. The photographic exchange is literal, as is Wilson’s reinscription of Indigenous culture, both shifting the seat of influence towards equality.

The portrait of Enoch Kelly Haney comes alive with Wilson’s augmented-reality app, Talking Tintypes, which he created for a selection of the works from CIPX. Hold your phone up to the photograph and Haney will begin introducing himself: as a former Oklahoma State Senator, an artist, and a citizen and Principal Chief of Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. He’ll tell you that when he spots a red-tailed hawk he sees his father. Listening to him, you’ll be reminded that power so often resides in the voice, and stepping back to look at all three photographs, you’ll understand the power of image, too.

See Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art at the YUAG until June 21, 2020.

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