“Always Here” gives Native artists free rein

by | Dec 9, 2022 | Arts and Entertainment | 0 comments

Jennie Castle needed to find a collaborator. Matthew Earl Williams was intrigued.

Castle is the new curator at The Arts Center in Corvallis. Before Castle took on the job, the center had received a Ford Family Foundation grant for a show to highlight artists from historically marginalized communities. The idea was that the show could spotlight Native American artists.

But Castle was concerned with making space for authenticity of voice in the exhibit, and thought a partner in the project would be essential. “I’m new to Corvallis. I’m new to the area. I’m also a white woman.” 

Castle knew about the work of Williams, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. In addition to working as a fine art photographer, Williams serves as the multimedia specialist for the tribes. Castle invited Williams to serve as guest curator for the show, “Always Here,” which opens Friday at The Arts Center.

Part of the curation chores for Williams involved selecting the three other Native artists who would participate in the show.

Williams was intrigued – and, almost from the start, he had a specific idea in mind.

“In the back of my head, I was thinking, ‘Well, let’s try to find people who are doing things that might be more contemporary, modern and unexpected. … A lot of times when we think of Indigenous and Native arts, we think of traditional arts, and they get labeled as craft or cultural practice.”

That traditional work is important, Williams said. But he also knows Native artists who are playing with those traditions to create provocative, contemporary pieces. And he invited three of those Native artists – all of whom have Oregon connections – to join him in “Always Here.”

The lineup for “Always Here” includes work by:

  • Amber Ball, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz and a theater artist who also creates beadwork pieces that draw on traditional imagery but add a contemporary twist.
  • Anthony Hudson (Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Siletz), a multidisciplinary artist and writer best known as Portland’s premiere drag clown Carla Rossi. GLOOP, a duo featuring Hudson/Rossi, recently performed at the Whiteside Theatre.
  • Steph Littlebird, an artist, curator, writer and registered member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

As for Williams, he’s bringing a series that, like the other works in “Always Here,” combines traditional themes with modern technology in an unexpected way.

Williams’ series “So you wanna be a stoic Indian” uses tintypes – a positive photographic image on a metal plate. Tintypes were popular visual media in the 1800s. Williams uses tintypes to document the avatars of people playing the Western video game “Red Dead Redemption 2” – and who choose to play the game as Native characters, even though they themselves are not Native.

The series is a logical extension of some of Williams’ other work exploring the art of video games, which includes portraits of gamers and gas stations in the game “Grand Theft Auto V.” As he explored the sprawling Old West setting of “Red Dead Redemption,” his curiosity was piqued by the people who had chosen Native characters for themselves. From there, it was a short jump to taking photographs of their characters in the game.

He gave the players latitude in deciding how and where in the game’s vast landscapes they wanted to be photographed.

“They almost always wanted to choose the traditional stoic Indian pose,” Williams said. “Like the things they had seen in those paintings or those movies for so long or old photographs.”

Inevitably, the pieces conjure stereotypes of Native Americans. Williams understands that – and thinks that his portraits, along with the other work featured in “Always Here,” will force viewers to challenge all those stereotypes.

“You know, until very recently, any kind of depiction of Natives on TV or in the movies was always in the past,” he said. “It was always that they had to be very spiritual or a warrior fighter. And that was it. There was nothing else. And so I think it’s good to show that it doesn’t have to be these things that are stuck in the past. And that we are still here. We’ve always been here.”

If You Go

“Always Here” opens Friday at The Arts Center, 500 SW Madison Ave. The opening reception is scheduled for Friday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. An artists’ talk is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Friday. The show runs until Jan. 21.

A related event, “Storytelling with Marta Lu Clifford,” is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 14 at 1:30 p.m. at The Arts Center. Clifford is a tribal elder and member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (Chinook, Cree). She serves as the tribal elder-in-residence for the University of Oregon Native theater courses.

The Arts Center is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m.

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