Sunday, November 2, 2014

For a Love of His People, The Photography of Horace Poolaw”

When we were in New York we went down to Wall Street/Bowling Green near the tip of Manhattan which was a rare visit for us.  Our goal was the New York branch of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) which together with NMAI on the Washington D.C. Mall has a collection of over 800,000 thousand objects!  It is in the Old Customs House on Bowling Green which is worth a visit by itself.  In the rotunda there are ceiling murals depicting the port of New York by Reginald Marsh.  But we were there to see the current exhibitions.

While we were there a show that was not high on my priority list struck me.  It was photographs by Horace Poolaw (1986-1984, Kiowa, Mountain View Oklahoma).  Linda Poolaw, Horace’s daughter, had started, after her father’s death, to bring his images to a wider audience and Nancy Marie Mithlow (Chiricahua Apache) and Tom Jones (Ho-Chunk) took up the project when they were at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  They have now superbly curated this exhibition.  Tom Jones had an additional interest in that Poolaw had inspired him to photograph his own tribe, which is not as simple as you might think.  The Indians generally do not like their privacy invaded with the camera so it is important to ask permission to take a photo and to have the sensitivity not to photograph religious ceremonies or dances.  Jones also owned the only original prints in the exhibition, which were a small group of mainly postcards (Those were the only works that I was not allowed to photograph.)

The galleries are well designed using moldings to create panels in the rooms in which the blown up images looked to scale.  The walls are grey with a darker grey on the rest of the wall and the ceiling a dark grey so the viewer reads it out.  The lighting is perfect so that there was not an ounce of reflection on the non-reflective glass.  Poolaw used a Speed Graphic camera which made it possible to blow up the images significantly from his negatives.

The rooms were divided into various themes, the first being Portraits.  Here the Indian girl dressed as a cowgirl and the boy dressed as an Anglo businessman caught my eye.  Poolaw did portraits to make some money but he could not make a living at it.


Then came Family Portraits.  An image of the entire family could have been my family except mine would have been a lot smaller!

Here is my favorite image in the exhibition, Jerry Poolaw, the artist's son, at the Washita River from 1932.

The room titled Community and War was particularly poignant.  Poolaw himself served in the armed forces during World War II as an instructor in aerial photography.  Here is an image of members of the Poolaw family with the casket of a friend, obviously a veteran, in 1953.

Another shows some of the contradictions of Indian life.  The Natives so badly treated by the Anglos but were the most loyal patriots always proudly serving their country but still holding on to their traditions and living in the modern world.  Note the car again behind the family in 1950.

Another section was devoted to Performances, Parades and Pageants.  Indians enjoy pageantry and you see a lot of it on Tribal lands.  In fact, many years ago we had made a reservation to go on a horseback ride on the Navajo Reservation and when we arrived we learned that their priority was that the horses rest for the parade the next day, so that was the end of that!  They usually wear traditional gear only for these events and most often make their own.  This image of the Natives sitting on the car with their tribal affiliation you can still often see today.

Poolaw was not interested in being known for his photographs but he wanted his people to be remembered for who they were.  The exhibition gives us insight into both. It will be up until February 15, 2015.

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