Blonde Tlingit at the Seattle Art Museum’s “Double Exposure” Exhibit
When you walk in to Double Exposure, there’s a timeline in the lobby. I see it with a sinking feeling: portraits of the ethnographer/artist Edward Curtis, a non-native photographer of remarkable skill whose hand defines the fading image of Native America.
I came to Double Exposure for the modern, that stormtrooper regalia that’s on all the posters. That image promises: now. We are here, now, and Native is who we are.
It’s harsh, then, when the first room is so unchallenging. It’s Curtis classics: romantic, historic images of who the native people were. It’s all Curtis, except Marianne Nicolson’s glass design– which is native-made, but again, unchallenging.
A woman’s voice narrates in her language as you read in English the introducing paragraphs of the exhibit. If you could understand her, that composition of sound and space would make it impossible to read and hear at once. The room assumes that you will not understand, that her voice is incomprehensible background syllables, pronounced carefully for effect alone.
I find a translation on a different wall: I am of this tribe, these people. To close: “we are still here.” But it belies itself; it’s no modern contribution. It’s easy to overlook. It is an introduction– nothing more.
I begin to see, reading each placard, the interjection of modern voices- some just art theory, notes on composition. But there’s the occasional jab: “he names her portrait Woman on Beach, but he would have known her name to be Francine.” She looks poor to the European eye, but the man quoted in the placard knows what to look for in the materials to know her wealth.
It’s not every piece that carries commentary. Most are presented just as they are: Curtis’s curation of a “soon-to-be-lost” culture from the early 1900's.
Throughout the exhibit are these Talking Tintypes, by Will Wilson: big glass prints of modern Natives, left to speak for themselves with no-paragraph placards. There is an icon next to the large portraits for some AR app, which I don’t download over data. I don’t have headphones, and the app store says it’s buggy.
Fortunately, there’s an alcove, computers you might pass on the way out, billed: “no smartphone? No problem”. I sit in the dark corner with the screen and the headphones that are playing only in the left ear. If you tap on the images, the modern tintypes animate to video and tell their stories. Critical voices speak on the dangerous framing of the Curtis images.
I scroll the Will Wilson images on this screen: some mixed race, some non-native elements: a suit jacket, a Greek fisherman’s cap. But all wear regalia in some form. All have dark skin, dark hair.
I’m Tlingit, and I don’t look like that, but Will Wilson is a Native artist specifically interested in reclaiming the narrative. I’m willing to trust his vision if his intent is to show only the obviously Native modern Natives. So I search on my phone while standing in front of a description of his work.
His portfolio is diverse: different colors of hair and skin, modern clothing, we exist this way in his work. This has been chosen: in this show about modern Natives, I don’t count. T’akdeintaan yadi ·y· xat, but my hair is too light for this SAM show.
There’s a strange, bright exhibit also tucked into the hallway. It’s a photo booth with scenes of Seattle. A computerized voice tells you to take a picture in the provided environment for future ethnography– the AI will caption your portrait.
It takes me a while to understand that this piece is indeed connected: it’s a commentary on the powerlessness of the subject to control narrative in an ethnographic study. Indeed, the captions generated are depersonalized and inaccurate: “15 Minute Break”, “Senator’s Son”. There’s a point that’s made, but the urgency– this will be how people see you forevermore– it’s missing in this selfie-booth setting.
There is printing on the wall: “We are still here.” But it’s on the back wall, the corridor you walk on your way out. You could miss it.