Native American artists break down stereotypes

Will Wilson’s exhibit at the Amerind Foundation. Photo by Cali Nash/Arizona Sonora News Service

Consider the ubiquitous sepia portrait of an American Indian, donned in an elaborate headdress,  embodying a kind of displaced dignity. This image irks Will Wilson.

The stereotypical depiction dates back to Edward S. Curtis, the celebrated photographer of the early 20th century. Curtis created an extensive body of photos intended to portray Native Americans as they actually were. Yet his sentimentalized lens captured the fantasy of Americans and arguably served to further displace indigenous cultures from the norm.

Wilson, an indigenous photographer, combats this romanticism with his own collection of Native American portraits. His work subverts stereotypes, yet as a contemporary indigenous artist, Wilson himself defies stereotypes of the types of artwork that Native Americans “should” produce.

He is part of a larger group of native artists that rejects the frozen ideals of Native American art as painted clay pots and vibrant beadwork. These artists work within the contemporary medium to create art that is both modern and relevant to their experiences.

Wilson says he seeks to “supplant Curtis’s Settler gaze” with a contemporary vision of Native North America. His photos mimic the infamous sepia headshots but cast their gaze on modern subjects.

His exhibit, “Toward a Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange,” is featured in the gallery at the Amerind Foundation, a hub for art and research in Texas Canyon dedicated to the increased understanding of native peoples in the United States.

Will Wilson self-portrait. Photo by Will Wilson/Arizona Sonora News Service

The Amerind Foundation began to incorporate contemporary artwork into its museum, alongside its historic indigenous artifacts, in the early 2000s, says Eric Kaldahl, the foundation’s deputy director and chief curator.

Kaldahl says the museum did not want visitors to leave with only the impression that “native cultures are of the past, rather than of the present, with vibrant communities and issues that they’re tackling.” So the foundation established the Fulton-Hayden Memorial Art Gallery, which features rotating contemporary exhibits, to provide more context for museum-goers.

Since its establishment, Kaldahl says the contemporary exhibits have evoked the greatest reaction from visitors who don’t necessarily interact with native peoples and have limited knowledge of their current lifestyles. As the curator, Kaldahl says he tries to include a diverse range of indigenous artists, styles and subjects to better expose visitors to multiple native perspectives.

Glory Tacheenie-Campoy, a Tucson-based contemporary indigenous artist, strongly believes that museums should house diverse styles and not just those that are traditional. Her artwork, which has been shown at the Amerind Foundation, is abstract.

Although artists like Tacheenie-Campoy and Wilson choose to incorporate Native American themes into their work, Tacheenie-Campoy says the art market often demands that indigenous artists make art in known indigenous styles or that pertains to Native American culture.

Tacheenie-Campoy says not all of her work has Native American aspects, but when it does, it’s often subtle. She can start with a geometric pattern found in a traditional woven rug and abstract it so that her artwork features indigenous culture, without reproducing stereotypical images of women and rugs.

This diverse style subtly can work against her in the competitive art world. Tacheenie-Campoy says that because there is always a demand for authentic indigenous art, she believes indigenous artists who fit that category are better able to sell and make a living off of their work.

Places such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Wilson is based, are renown for their authentic indigenous art. Tacheenie-Campoy explains that there’s a separate market for ignorant consumers, usually tourists, who have little understanding of the art’s tradition or context but nonetheless want it. Mass-produced, inauthentic and cheap renderings of traditional art fill this niche and exploit the culture it comes from, she says.

Many museums, including the Amerind Foundation, now have stores that sell authentic indigenous arts and crafts and books on the history and present of Native American cultures to meet the market’s demand on their own terms.

Portraits featured in "Toward A Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange." Photo by Cali Nash/Arizona Sonora News Service
Portraits featured in “Toward A Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange.” Photo by Cali Nash/Arizona Sonora News Service

Wilson, too, emphasizes the importance of agency in his photo exchange. Wilson says the subject’s active involvement in the portrait is key to creating a photographic dialogue centered on the recreation of American Indians’ contemporary presence.

He intends the dialogue to disrupt the assumed power of the photograph to be objective, and capture rather than construct. This acknowledged subjectivity displaces Curtis’ implied objectivity.

The studio portrait is a powerful tool Wilson uses to create a link between the photograph’s ritualistic quality and the historical representation of American Indians. Wilson describes the portrait process as an intimate experience, with each image containing its own narrative. Ultimately, Wilson hopes his body of photos will “add a layer to how people think about Indians.”

Wilson will be joining two other featured artists at the Amerind Foundation on March 5 for a gallery talk. He’ll discuss his photo exhibit in greater depth with visitors, and also will demonstrate the photographic process he uses by taking several portraits of volunteers.

Cali Nash is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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