Re-Mediating Curtis: Toy Portraits
Light boxes, 3D cardboard glasses
The Re-mediating Curtis project is a creative research project exploring interactive multi-media and digital photo-based installation. The project is a critique and reflection on the film and its influence on popular images of Indianess. In the Land of the Head Hunters (later titled In the Land of the War Canoe) is an early ethnographic film by Edward S. Curtis shot on Deer Island near Port Hardy on Vancouver Island. The complexity of the film’s relationship to the cultures of the Northwest Coast and specifically of Vancouver Island in identity formation is explored through interactive multi-media installation and digital photography.
Re-mediating Curtis is the larger research project from which this exhibition of digital photos is drawn. This installation is developed from portraits of toys based on Curtis’ portrait photography of North West Coast Peoples and other ethnographic sources. Through the process of photographing these toys Curtis’ work is linked to popular culture representations of Indigenous peoples. This results in ironic multi-layered processes of re-mediation and reconfigures Curtis’ work in relationship to issues of representation within popular culture. The portraits are presented in light boxes referencing commercial advertising displays associated with mainstream movie promotion. In addition, the portraits have been photographed in 3D to reference current trends in commercial film production and representation of indigenous cultures in films such as Avatar. This series of three large-scale portraits are printed on backlit film.
While In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914) and Curtis’ work in general has been referenced and discussed in both Anthropology and Contemporary Art discourses, little work has been done focusing on his impact on contemporary popular images of Indian-ness. In the Royal British Columbia Museum there is a significant presentation of Curtis’ work in relation to Northwest Coast Culture as part of the First Peoples Gallery. The Gallery presents segments of Curtis’ film as well as large-scale versions of his portraiture. As a person of North West Coast heritage and an individual who grew up on Vancouver Island I have always found the exhibit problematic as it does not acknowledge or reflect on Curtis’ film and his images as being largely a romanticized and imaginary construction. However multiple and complex Curtis’ objectives in making In the Land of the Headhunters were, it is clear that the project has a place in the development of “salvage ethnography” at the turn of the 20th century.
Stephen Foster is a video and electronic media artist of mixed Haida and European background. His work tends to deal with issues of indigenous representation in popular culture through personal narrative and documentary. He has exhibited both internationally and nationally and is a sought after lecturer and panelist on interactive documentary and Canadian contemporary indigenous art.
Stephen is currently an Associate Professor in the Creative Studies Department at the University of British Columbia–Okanagan where he instructs courses dedicated to video production, digital media and visual theory.