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Shifting Focus

Historical Photos, Contemporary Art

Photography is a powerful art form that can document once-in-a-lifetime events, and everyday happenings, recording important people and places as well as scenes from our daily lives. Such historical images often inspire artists; they create new works of art that reinterpret or even take to task photographs of the past. This exhibition features work by Native artists of the late 20th century who were inspired to transform historical photographs into drawings, paintings, prints, and even beaded objects.

Photography was invented in 1839, and as the technology developed it became more widely used. By the late-1800s photographers were documenting the devastation of the Civil War and the promise a new era inspired by westward expansion. As EuroAmericans moved across the continent they photographed the rugged and “untamed” west and its inhabitants, capturing images of the landscape and Native people during a time of significant change.

Such images by photographers Edward S. Curtis and others have become part of American visual history through their use in publications, exhibitions, documentaries, and the popular media. They have helped create a vision of Native people of the past century striving to maintain their traditions in the face of increasing pressures of modernity. In the late 20th century Native artists began reimagining and repurposing such photos. Paintings by Fritz Scholder (Luiseňo) and others were not simply reproductions, but rather were reinterpretations. Scholder gave new life to black-and-white photos of Native people with his characteristic loose and lively brush strokes and bright Pop Art color palette. A classic example is Indians #19 which is based on a 1908 Curtis photograph of a traditional Arikara dance. Other artists like Jackie Larson Bread (Blackfeet) uses brightly colored beads to enliven historical portraits of Native leaders like Red Shirt.

Curated by Christina E. Burke.

  • Philbrook Downtown

Thank You

The sponsors listed in the link above make exhibitions possible through generous donations. To learn more about Philbrook Exhibition Series Sponsors, complete a sponsor contact form.