We live in a time when artists of color are wondering if their only route to legitimacy in the art world is to do the work that a predominantly white art world expects of them. Current anti-racist thinking claims so it is not the duty of the marginalized or otherwise disenfranchised people to do the emotional work of explaining their historical contexts and reasons for grievances to those who do not seek to understand them themselves. They ask: if I’m indigenous, can I only do work that deals with indigenousness?
Ho Chunk Artist tom jones puts it more simply: Regardless of whether the art looks “Indian” enough, “Native American art is still Native American … because it stems from Native American thinking and upbringing.” Jones has persistently made art about and for Native Americans for more than two decades Ho Chunk Nation. In the past year, the art world has started to take notice. With works currently on view in nationwide And national Recognized venues, the artist’s many musings on Aboriginal identity have emerged within the walls of PWIs and beg for recognition and reckoning.
While he claims his main audience is the Ho Chunk people, his latest work, Strong relentless spirits, has a mass appeal that extends beyond the Ho-Chunk Nation. Against a stark black background, Jones creates life-size portraits of Ho Chunk members, then painstakingly sews traditional Ho Chunk floral designs around his subjects, creating what he calls what he calls an “aura.” Beginning with a portrait of his mother JoAnn Jones to completing a portrait of Bella Falcon, a young ho-chunk woman of the Bear clan, Jones has increased the scope of his ambitions; The larger portraits take 120 hours or more to be pearls. Always in memory of the legacy of Edward Curtis and his portrait series The North American IndianJones finds ways to create images that speak to the individual as a collective, rather than individuals as a collective.
Many of Jones’ subjects wear traditional Native American clothing, although there are notable exceptions to T-shirts, khakis, suspenders, coveralls, and camouflage motifs. The sitters wear whatever they want at the session, something that Jones’ portraits have in common Charles Van Schaik, a 19th-century photographer who photographed the Ho-Chunk people not as cultural props but as paying customers to have their portraits portrayed for personal use. As with Van Schaik, ho-chunk people come to Jones’ studio with an idea of how they want to be seen. In most portraits, the sitter looks directly at the viewer, forbidding the viewer to impose a cultural projection without the subject “seeing” it.
A popular way of interpreting portraits is that a portrait of someone else is also a self-portrait of the artist. If this is true of Jones, his portraits reveal a searching and generous nature, conscious and confident of who the sitters are but at the same time aware that they are being evaluated by the outside world. In an essay that Jones wrote for People of the Big Voice: Photographs of Ho Chunk Families by Charles Van Schaikhe addresses this double consciousness:
There is an unspoken complexity in the way a photo is read by people from different cultures and backgrounds. Each time a photograph is encountered, the viewer decodes the image with constructed notions of constructed knowledge. There are also the intentions of the photographer and the subject. What did the photographer choose to show us and what did the sitter choose to reveal? The interpretation we give to the image comes from our understanding of what the people in the photos experienced.
What do we know about what a ho chunk person experienced? What are we willing to share? Do we know that the tribe was forcibly evicted from their ancestral homelands in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota? 13 times between 1832 and 1874? Or that they had to do so as a condition of the right to remain on their lands in 1874 renounce and give up Tribal rituals and relationships, and that outdoor footage of forbidden Aboriginal practices was used as evidence to arrest and evict people? This last historical fact is directly related to bans by tribal elders on photographing traditional and private ceremonies, although Jones related this Centre County Report that the ubiquity of cell phone cameras has changed tribal perceptions of this, particularly among younger members. Whether or not permission is given or accepted by Ho Chunk elders to photograph rites and ceremonies, it is clear that there is a huge gap between what we think we know and what we already do should know exists.
Jones sometimes takes on the task of educating the non-native viewer. He draws a line between the ongoing work he is doing for the Ho-Chunk and a more conceptual work that has a final point of closure, the latter speaking more generally about the Aboriginal experience. In these more speculative series, non-native viewers find themselves embedded in, often, attitudes of implication. In the series leftovers, Jones combines indigenous casino carpet patterns with glass engravings of historical – and often racist – depictions of indigenous people. Drawings and engravings appropriated from 19th-century publications are used in diptychs and triptychs dealing with issues of cultural genocide, forced religious conversion, white assimilation and, last but not least, the white fantasies of indigenous peoples.
Surprisingly, Jones says he worked on most of the work he’s done and for the Ho-Chunk out of tribal reverence, and it’s possible it will never be seen. When asked if he hoped to exhibit this work one day, he replied, “I don’t really care that the outside world sees it.” Much of this exists as future documents for Ho-Chunk members, as elements of a archives. Conversely in work like Strong relentless spirits, Jones sees his role as creating visibility for his people. “This visibility is important to me. I think of the little kids, the teenagers, and I think it’s so powerful to see yourself represented in art.”
Tom Jones is currently at it speak with light at the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, Denver, Colorado) through May 22, curated by John Rohrbach and Will Wilson; Native America: In Translation at the Milwaukee Art Museum (700 North Art Museum Drive, Milwaukee, Wisconsin) through June 25, curated by Wendy Red Star; And water memories at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 2, curated by Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purépecha).