Remediating Curtis – Imagining Indigeneity
Surrey Art Gallery
Continuing to June 14, 2015
By Barbara, Tyner
Stephen Foster, production still for "Remediating Curtis: Toy Portraits"
Stephen Foster, production still for "Remediating Curtis: Toy Portraits," 2013.
Stephen Foster is known for work that considers the sources of cultural images, internalized stereotypes and stories about indigenous peoples. He encourages viewers to become aware that their own preconceptions, what they are imagining, may be based on stories they have heard, not on any reality.
For Foster, an artist of Haida and European heritage, and a professor at UBC Okanagan in Kelowna, the American photographer Edward S. Curtis is the source for many of these stories. Curtis spent the early 1900s photographing indigenous peoples across the West. His legacy is mixed; his portraits are evocative and beautiful, but not ethnographically reliable. Known for manipulating context, he produced both dramatic narratives and indelible stereotypes.
Foster explores Curtis’ vision throughout this two-part exhibition. The main gallery features a series of compelling, large-format portraits of indigenous subjects presented in anaglyph 3D technology. Foster emulates Curtis’ romantic pictorialism to convey a haunting intimacy. But, surprise! The subjects are toys, store-bought dolls, icons of indigeneity dreamed up in a German toy factory. And those dreams, Foster explains, have origins in Curtis’ images.
Image courtesy of the artist.
"In the Land of The Headhunters: Potlatch Dancers"
Stephen Foster, "In the Land of The Headhunters: Potlatch Dancers," 2013, inkjet print for backlit light box, 48” x 60”.
An adjacent installation presents a multi-layered interactive experience of collaged and changing image and sound, again in 3D. Viewers create their experience, triggering motion sensors to change video and audio sequences with the wave of a hand, or by interacting with objects installed in the space. Bare-chested Hollywood warriors (Anthony Quinn, Charles Bronson, Rock Hudson, even Johnny Depp), greet visitors in overlapping incarnations, interspersed with Foster’s video and bits of the infamous 1914 Curtis film, In the Land of the Head Hunters. In this context, familiar images create new questions. Foster credits Curtis as the source for pervasive ‘sexy savage’ stereotypes. (Depp has said he based the look of his Tonto character on a 2006 painting likely informed by a 1908 Curtis photo.)
The installation’s visual and psychological backbone is Foster’s 3D re-creation of the longhouse built for the Curtis film. It’s a projected image with the heft of an anchor: Curtis’ set was constructed by Kwakwaka’wakw people working on a film that glorified the very activities banned at the time by the Canadian government.
Foster isn’t heavy handed; his work and his meanings are gracefully layered and unfixed. His goal: “To create a space for revealing and decoding pervasive ideology. In decoding, you can disempower those notions. If the work is successful, it can break down barriers, open dialogue.”
— Barbara Tyner