Portraits from the Dancing Grounds
December 10, 2005 to March 19, 2006
Since I was a young boy I have been fascinated with photographs, especially historical photographs of First Nations people. I also wondered if my ancestors had photographed their world or was it just white men who made the images. I had many questions about what had taken place and with so few answers I set out to answer them myself. Along the way I met the popular American photographer Edward S. Curtis and his photographs of First Nations people and as my photographic practice matured, his work was always somewhere in the background. I was intrigued by the contrast between his view of First Nations people and the world I experienced as an urban-Iroquois, two very different yet related dancing grounds.
For this project I have returned to my research work with Edward S. Curtis, who studied North American tribal cultures in the North American West between the years 1898 and 1930. His work resulted in a twenty-volume publication entitled The North American Indian. I came across reproductions of his photographs during the mid-1970s – around the time that my interest in photography was developing – and I was captivated. But more importantly it was the face of the sitters that caught my attention. I suspect that for many people it was the exotic adornment and style of dress that was most appealing because it was reminiscent of the old Wild West days.
The faces Curtis had so effectively captured reminded me of people in my family and people I saw on powwow dancing grounds. Looking at Curtis’s images generated a whirlwind in my mind, a centrifugal force disrupting the staid encapsulation of the past on a silver emulsion surface. My mentor Emily General often complained about the younger generation’s complacency in a complex world that needed constant interrogation while always being mindful and respectful of our history. My goal is not to retell the past through Curtis’s photographs, but to find contemporary meaning and build interconnectivity between past and present – this project is a condensation of my journey.
Jeff Thomas, 1956-
Get Up and Dance, 1996
l: Ron Good Eagle, r. Strong Hearts
chromira print diptych
101.6 x 76.2 cm
Collection of the Artist