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  • Mary Ann Wark

IOH 5: Humor Can Make Art Accessible

The Iroquois is a Highly Developed Matriarchal Society • Shelley Niro, Bay of Quinte Mohawk, Six Nations Turtle clan Hand-colored gelatin silver prints Courtesy of the artist ©Shelley Niro

I gave a few public tours and one private tour of In Our Hands, all for adults. All of my visitors were very interested and were able to think about their initial impressions of a work and then learn about the photographer’s ideas that questioned common beliefs about Native people and their history. The stories the artists embedded were powerful, and identity issues surfaced often with the photographer reclaiming identity that had been taken away by the majority culture. Native photographers were dealing with their people’s history versus what they’d been taught and yet also thinking through what they themselves wanted and what they didn’t.

I found that elements of humor, irony, or satire in some of the artworks led viewers to better understand the Native view and experience. The photos that had humor let viewers recognize that their own initial ideas may have been different from the photographer’s, and become more aware of Native perspectives. Here are four examples:

The Iroquois is a Highly Developed Matriarchal Society by Shelley Niro shows the artist’s mother under a hairdryer and laughing as the photographer and her sister look on from outside the frame. The photographer wanted to poke fun at a common statement made by anthropologists that had been romanticized, that the Iroquois was the perfect society for studying matriarchy and the power of women. Choosing a home setting with a grandmother under the hairdryer wasn’t what most anthropologists thought of as “leadership,” thus allowing the viewer to question non-Native ideas in a relatable way.

White Man's Mocassins, 1954 • Lee Marmon, Laguna Pueblo Gelatin silver print Courtesy of the C.N. Gorman Museum, 2008.20.10.67

White Man’s Moccasins by Lee Marmon depicts a Native person in high-top tennis shoes. A buyer had asked why the man in the photograph wasn’t wearing moccasins and so Marmon titled it as you see … leading to a discussion of commonly held ideas of “Native dress.”

China Basin District, 1997 Zig Jackson, Sahnish (Arikara), Minitari (Hidatsa), Numakiki (Mandan) Gelatin silver print Courtesy of the artist ©Zig

Zig Jackson's photo, China Basin District, had a sign that read: Entering Zigs Indian Reservation. Private Property, Open Range Cattle on Highway, No picture taking, No hunting, No air traffic, New Agers Prohibited without permission from Tribal Council” involved satirical occupation questions about reservation borders and disputed that the Indian and general urban environment were mutually exclusive.

In I Dreamed of Being a Warrior, Rosalie Favell shows herself as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz movie in a series of four photos. In the first, she is sleeping. In the next photo appear images of all the Wizard of Oz characters including the “Wizard” — actually Louis Riel, a Canadian politician who in the 1800s stood up for people of mixed descent and said, “My people will sleep for 100 years but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” In the next photos she wakes up and shows herself a warrior — and like Dorothy who used the red brick road to get home, she has worked hard to find herself a path home to family and her ancestors. In this way, Favell gets her spirit back just as predicted by Riel more than a century before.

I Dreamed of Being a Warrior, 1999 Rosalie Favell, Métis Inkjet print Courtesy of the artist ©Rosalie Favell

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