Storytelling Revisits Indigenous Peoples Through the Lens of Edward Curtis at the SB Museum of Natural History

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From November 11 to April 30, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History will exhibit portraits of Indigenous peoples, landscapes and cultures by influential ethnographic photographer Edward S. Curtis. The exhibition places the artist and the people he photographed within the context of American colonialism, inviting viewers to reconsider pervasive pop culture beliefs about Indigenous life and history.

Credit: Courtesy

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. 100 years later, Aboriginal peoples are still struggling with the “Indian” stereotypes that are the consequences of Edward Curtis’ vision.

While many of the photographer’s images are iconic, Storytelling: Native People through the Lens of Edward S. Curtis aims to show what has not been seen or understood before. This was also the focus of the Museum’s popular exhibition of Curtis photographs in 2007, curated by Museum Librarian Terri Sheridan. This year, a strong infusion of lesser-seen imagery and new interpretation provides “wider exposure for people, in terms of what’s on the walls as well as what their takeaways might be,” says Sheridan.

The most important lesson, according to Sheridan, is respect for unique Indigenous cultures. Sheridan wants the images selected and their interpretation to counteract the stereotypical presentation of popularized Curtis imagery that 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,” Sheridan explains, “he usually spoke with men, not realizing that often women were people of power in particular cultures. He also very rarely named women , so their photographs are often simply ‘wife of’ or ‘sister of’. Although we rarely know their names, these women should be seen. An enigma of breathtaking beauty and iconography of conflicting emotions , Storytelling is set to run through April.

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

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