Storytelling Exhibit Revisits Indigenous Peoples Through the Lens of Edward S. Curtis | Culture & Leisure

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Posted on October 23, 2022
| 1:05 p.m.

Centennial photos from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History revisit beliefs about native culture

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Detail from ‘East Mesa Girls’, 1921 photogravure by Edward S. Curtis. (Edward S. Curtis)

'Principal Female Shaman of the Hupa', 1923 photogravure by Edward S. Curtis.
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‘Principal Female Shaman of the Hupa’, 1923 photogravure by Edward S. Curtis. (Edward S. Curtis)

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History will exhibit portraits of Indigenous peoples, landscapes, and cultures by influential ethnographic photographer Edward S. Curtis, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Nov. 11-April 30; museum closed on Tuesdays.

The exhibition, Storytelling: Native People Through the Lens of Edward S. Curtis, situates the artist and the people he photographed within the context of American colonialism, inviting viewers to reconsider pop culture’s pervasive beliefs about the Native life and history.

Influenced by the pictorialist movement of the early 20th century, Curtis set out to create a photographic and ethnographic record of the indigenous peoples living in the western regions, from the Mexican border to the coasts of Alaska.

His motivation was the belief that US government policy and land grabbing by American settlers could annihilate native ways of life forever. While Curtis’s intentions were well-intentioned, his methods of staging photos transformed reality into images that are often more art than fact.

A century later, Indigenous peoples still grapple with the “Indian” stereotypes that are the consequences of Curtis’ vision.

Although many of the photographer’s images are iconic, the display aims to show what has not been seen or understood before. This was also the focus of the Museum’s 2007 exhibition of photographs by Curtis, curated by museum librarian Terri Sheridan.

This year, a strong infusion of lesser-seen images and fresh interpretation provide “wider exposure for people, in terms of what’s on the walls as well as what their takeaways might be,” Sheridan said. .

The most important lesson, according to Sheridan, is respect for unique Indigenous cultures. Sheridan wants the images selected and their interpretation to counter the stereotypical presentation of popularized Curtis imagery, which portrays cultures as identical.

In particular, she hopes to engender more respect and understanding for women who have agreed to be photographed.

“Because of the patriarchal place that Curtis came from, he generally spoke with men, not realizing that often women were power people in particular cultures, Sheridan said. “He also very rarely named women, so their photographs are often just ‘wife of’ or ‘sister of’.

“Although we rarely know their names, these women should be seen.”

Online details are at sbnature.org/storytelling. Admission to the photo exhibit is included with admission to the museum.

The exhibit is sponsored by Knight Real Estate Group of Village Properties, First Republic Bank, Kathleen Kalp and Jim Balsitis, Kelly and Tory Milazzo.

To learn more about the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, visit sbnature.org.

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