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The Masks of Arthur Renwick

[ 0 ] July 8, 2010 |

Arthur Renwick sat his subjects in front of his camera and he talked with them about identity, asked them to think about the historical relationship between photography and the “Indian,” and then he told them to make a face. The result: Mask, Renwick’s portrait series that documents First Nations authors and entertainers who have faced cultural assumptions about their heritage throughout their careers.

The relationship between First Nations people and the camera extends from the mid-1800s into the present. Early photographs created the image of the Plains Indian in a feathered headdress, the noble savage from a vanishing race. The legacy of these early photographs continued in Hollywood cowboy-and-Indian movies and permeated American popular culture. Throughout history, artists have often depicted the face of First Nations culture as both awesome and terrifying. For the most part, these enduring stereotypes have rendered individual First Nations people invisible.

The Mask portraits are of people like Fernando Hernandez, a Mayan actor who played an evil shaman in Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto; Carla Robinson, the cover girl of this issue of FACE and a news anchor for CBC Newsworld, and her sister, Eden Robinson, author of Monkey Beach, Traplines and Blood Sports (they both grew up with Renwick in Kitamaat, B.C.—they are all Haisla, and the women are also part Heiltsuk); Tom Hill, a Governor General’s Award–winning artist who was the first Aboriginal art curator in Canada; and Jani Lauzon, a Metis singer, actor and puppeteer. They have all combated stereotypes to establish and retain their own identities.

During the portrait sittings for Mask, Renwick invited the subjects to look into the lens and make a facial gesture that would undermine traditional Indian portraiture. The sitters produced fresh and startling images that were neither stoic nor noble. Renwick showed several of his Mask portraits at the National Gallery of Canada in an exhibition called Steeling the Gaze: Portraits by Aboriginal Artists, and the National Gallery purchased twelve of the Mask images in 2008.

Renwick has since built on Mask with a new body of work titled Mask: Artists and Curators. In this series, he exhibits larger-than-life portraits of First Nations artists and curators who participated in a curatorial conference at the University of British Columbia First Nations House.


Arthur Renwick

These new photographs capture artists like Joseph Sanchez, who is also a curator at the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Skeena Reece, a performance artist, writer, singer and the founder of the Native Youth Artists Collective. Many people at the conference had questioned and challenged their “Indian” identity in their own work, and they were familiar with the stereotypical depictions of Aboriginals in history

and pop culture. Renwick asked them to gaze into his Hasselblad and “pull a face” in response to those depictions. These portraits are big and bold, and the gaze of the subjects makes some viewers feel uncomfortable. But many First Nations

people laugh when they see the images; they do not feel uncomfortable, they feel empowered.

Renwick’s portraits subvert expectations and offer a new representation of First Nations people to the history of portraiture. They depict an Aboriginal culture that is alive, reactive and comfortable with challenging and mocking the norm.

In August 2010, eight Mask works will be shown at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Arthur Renwick is represented by the Leo Kamen Gallery, 406-80 Spadina Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, www.leokamengallery.com

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Category: The Arts

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