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  • Shawn Gilliam

In Conversation with the Curator: Creating "In Our Hands"

Jill Ahlberg Yohe shares how the Native photography exhibition came together and why that process was important.

Celena White, 𐓷𐓘𐓻𐓘𐓻𐓟 𐓪𐓡𐓪͘ (Osage Cook), 2018 • Ryan Redcorn (Osage)

Sublimated fabric print. Courtesy of the artist

In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now represents the largest exhibition of Native photography at Mia—or, for that matter, at nearly any American art museum—ever. Insight recently sat down with one of the show’s three curators, Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Associate Curator of Native American Art (the other two were Casey Riley, Mia’s Chair of Global Contemporary Art and Curator of Photography and New Media, and Jaida Grey Eagle, Consulting Curator), to learn more about the collaborative process behind the planning and why it was an important part of the show.

You and your fellow curators have pulled off what many people, including guides, see as another ground-breaking exhibition, four years after Hearts of Our People: Native Voices highlighted the work of Native women artists. Tell us a little about the show’s inception, including working with two other curators.

As guides heard in training, Jaida came here as our Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Native American Fellow, and she is a photojournalist. She’s been featured in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and she worked for Sahan Journal for a couple of years. She was trained at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She came here very excited, and one of the first questions she asked was, “What are our holdings of Native photography?” And I thought to myself, very little. We had just acquired the magnificent Cara Romero piece Kaa that was in Hearts of Our People, so that was a wonderful addition, but there were only, honestly, a handful of photographs. And so we talked to Casey about that, and about our interest. And Casey was also very interested in growing the collection, understanding that while we have a magnificent collection of photography at Mia, one of the key areas that was missing was Native photographers. So it really just started with that—and what better way of understanding the field than creating an exhibition about it?

Left: Kaa, 2017 (as seen in Hearts of Our People) • Cara Romero ( Chemeheuvi Indian Tribe) Archival pigment print on Legacy Fibre photography paper

Bequest of Virginia Doneghy, By Exchange. and Gift of Funds from Christopher Cardozo 2019.64 Right: Hermosa, 2021 (as seen in In Our Hands: Native Photography) • Cara Romero ( Chemeheuvi Indian Tribe) Archival pigment print on Canson Baryta, Prestige paper

Gift of Funds from Eric and Celita Levinson 2021.81

And from there, you brought in the council of Native artists, scholars, and knowledge sharers, right?

Our curatorial practice here with Native art is based on the understanding that for an experience that is stronger, more robust, more deeply moving, and more loaded with expertise, the right way to go about this is to work with experts who are Native. I mean, these are legends in the field. I think about it in retrospect: Our formidable council is the heart and soul of the project, and we just sat and listened and co-created this exhibition. We did nothing without them. And that was the birth of this exhibition.

For the council, did you tap some of the same people who worked on Hearts of Our People?

Well, there was one person, Jolene Rickard, and she's probably arguably the most important scholar of Native art right now—and for the last 20, 30 years. But everybody else was somebody outside of the council from Hearts of Our People. So we just knew who to seek counsel from, and they were those people who have dedicated their entire lives to Native art. Part of our job is knowing whom to ask, because if you know whom to ask and whom to work with, ultimately that is the most important decision that you make. And once it is in the hands of those people, it's a very rapidly unfolding process.

Fight For The Line, 2012 • Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora Nation, Turtle Clan) Single channel video projection onto painted metal. Courtesy of the artist Photo: Maryam Marne Zafar

Is that where the name “In Our Hands” came from?

Yes, the title refers to “In Our Hands” in multiple ways ... the show being in the hands of the Council, the camera being in the hands of Native photographers, the photographs largely being “in the hands” of the community symbolically.

As the show took shape, what was your biggest surprise?

In the creation of the show, you are seeing these as individual works. The surprise and the delight was actually seeing them in conversation with each other—and by and large, it was for the first time ever. That is something so special, to be an eyewitness to those conversations that are happening between the works themselves. So I think that that would be the biggest surprise.

You and others have noted that some works weren’t intended to be displayed in an art museum—yet, now they are. Explain the thinking you all had about that.

For sure, there are some historic works that I think about—by Parker McKenzie and Lucy Sumpty, for example—that are made for kinship ties or relationship ties, and not created for being on a museum wall. And I think that’s very important for us to understand: what is the intention behind a work of Native art, and is it something that should be on display? We think about that all the time in Native art curation, because not everything is meant for mass consumption, or sometimes it is reserved for people who have the rights to see the work, the photography. But again, in the hands of our council—as they selected these beautiful historic works—we knew that it was appropriate to showcase the historic work. What the photographers show is that it is a part of our history. It’s a part of Native history, it’s a part of American history, it’s a part of Canadian history. And that was never outside many Native people's understanding of the importance of chronicling this history.

Nettie Odlety and Francis Ross, c. 1915 • Parker McKenzie (Kiowa) Photograph

Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art

Some of that history is making national and international headlines, and it’s sensitive. The subject of boarding schools, of course, comes to mind. How does photography in the show address a subject like that?

I think the show illustrates the complexity of something like boarding school and does it in a profoundly deep way. And that is the result of Native photographers having that lens to share those experiences with others. Pat Kane, in a very reverential and beautifully rendered photograph, takes an image of a burial ground that is related to a boarding school near his homeland in which Native people had to endure great pain, sometimes death. They were forced to become Christians, were forced to learn English, were forced to not speak their language, were forced to learn an entirely different approach from their Indigenous one. So that is a powerfully moving piece, and it shows the depth of tragedy in our American and Canadian history with boarding schools that is being amplified right now.

At the same time, there are images by Parker McKenzie and Lucy Sumpty and Nettie Odlety in which we are seeing a budding, loving relationship that happened in a boarding school captured in beautiful, intimate snapshots. This turned out to be a lifelong marriage between two individuals who met at boarding school. So that's a huge thing that you see in the exhibition—that even in beautiful times and even in the darkest times, Native photographers and Native artists will always be creating.

Free the Land, 1964 • Joseph J. Allen (Sicangu Lakota Oyate, born 1964) Chromogenic Print

Courtesy of Maryam Marne Zafar Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art

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