Wendy Red Star, Crow Country

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Kris Graves Projects (here). Softcover, 48 pages, with 29 color reproductions. Includes an essay by the artist. Crow Country is one of 20 monographs included in the LOST II series/boxed set (here). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The LOST photobook project takes as its centerpiece a relatively straightforward but ultimately potentially rich idea – that if we ask photographers to make pictures of their home (or a place they have lived), they will inevitably come back with a resonant mix of visual observations and learnings that are steeped in their own personal experience there. Whether home is a country, a city, a village, a neighborhood, or some other space defined by the coordinates on a map, by definition, it has a complex (and often hidden) history, is marbled with memories, and is busy defining (or redefining) its own present, all of which provide creative fodder for the person behind the camera and his or her own search for identity.

The first iteration of LOST (from 2018, here) asked ten photographers to consider this question, and their results were bound into common sized photobooks that fit into a neat slipcase. A new second iteration of the project, entitled LOST II, goes bigger, extending the invitation to another twenty photographers from around the globe, their diverse responses to and interpretations of the prompt providing a varied sense of context for what a place can represent to an artist. Wendy Red Star’s Crow Country is part of this recent LOST II set, and takes us inside the Apsáalooke (Crow) reservation in Montana where she grew up (she now lives and works in Portland, OR.)

For many, the photographic record of the indigenous peoples of North America begins and ends with one early 20th century name – Edward Curtis. Curtis’ multi-decade project (running from 1907 to 1930) to systematically document the traditional life of as many native tribes and peoples as possible before they were eliminated forever is certainly a landmark in American documentary/ethnographic photography.

Even though he was an outsider (and therefore not the best voice to tell the story), his monumental effort undeniably created expectations and conceptual structures for those that have come after him and attempted to update the picture of native life. Wendy Red Star’s contemporary artistic practice unpacks and explores many of those those limits and embedded biases, using photography, collage, video, installation and other forms to interrogate the interaction of traditional and modern lifestyles. Using her empowered voice as a member of the community, she has brashly considered the tropes, stereotypes, and ironies that are routinely applied to representations of Native Americans, and pushed on the broader issues of colonialism, women’s rights, and racial politics that are still veined through life in the community.

Crow Country is a more modest and less conceptually provocative set of photographs than many of her recent bodies of work. The collection of images feels like a backdrop to her artistic practice – a layered visual documentation of the place from which her inspiration is derived and where her childhood and family memories reside. The photobook begins with an image of her daughter (and frequent collaborator) Beatrice standing beneath a massive rock outcropping in the twilight of the early evening. The picture immediately establishes the relationship between the girl and the land – she is dwarfed by its bulky presence, a small dot against its majestic and enduring sweep. It is a photograph that acknowledges the insignificance of human presence and the reverence that should be paid to the power of the natural world around us. The other landscapes sprinkled through the book repeat this sense of being vitally connected to, but in awe of, the ancient curves and textures of the land.

Many of Red Star’s photographs capture the physical intrusions of outsiders (of various forms, including the US government) into Crow life. Limits, edges, and boundaries are marked by authoritative signs, creating definitions of inside and outside and rules of control that the land itself doesn’t recognize. Simple post offices and churches feel like markers of invasion and colonization, and even the sign announcing a roadworks project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the Obama stimulus of 2009) has a darkly ironic subtext when placed in the context of a reservation (where the “recovery” of native peoples wasn’t always what anyone would call a priority). Once we start to see the complexities of these kinds of markers and outposts, even the upbeat and seemingly innocuous “Welcome to Crow Country” sign seems to have many possible readings, especially given its march of telephone poles and barbed wire fencing.

Other pictures settle into the everyday rhythms of life. Children learn to ride horses, and the horses have babies of their own. Both dead cows and rusted cars become desiccated corpses in the dry grass. Sweat lodges spring up behind houses. Red Star’s father is a presence in his granddaughter’s life. Tribal rituals bring the community together, and pickup trucks are festooned with headdresses and banners. And the sign for the obligatory casino stands awkwardly against the bigness of the sky. The message of the pictures is understated – modernity intrudes, but the time-worn patterns that form the foundation of native life quietly resist.

Photographically, Red Star’s compositions aren’t particularly sophisticated or mannered – her subjects are generally centered in the frame (whether they are people, buildings, signs, or mountain vistas), the tacit message being that the content is more important than the framing or the vantage point. We might call them snapshots, except that they often have an undercurrent of meaning or purpose that makes them richer than they appear on the surface. They tell their stories without shouting, from a more measured and patient perspective. While a picture of an unassuming ranch house with a lawn in front might not initially seem memorable or engrossing, when we step back and try to see that same structure through Red Star’s eyes (perhaps it is even a place of some significance for her, we don’t know), that humble home starts to open up all kinds of thorny questions.

In the end, Crow Country (and the LOST photobook series more generally) is part of a much larger (and long overdue) wave in photography that is finally taking seriously the perspectives of marginalized and minority artmakers in America and elsewhere. Red Star takes us to the place she grew up and calls home and asks us simply to look closely, through her eyes rather than our own. What she shows us feels subtle and authentic, and encourages us actively wrestle with the embedded Edward Curtis-era assumptions we bring to images of (and made by) Native Americans.

Collector’s POV: Wendy Red Star is represented by Sargent’s Daughters in New York (here). A mid-career survey of her work was recently on view at the Newark Museum (here).

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