When Things Speak: The Portrait

Hulleah Tsinhnahjinni created "The Promises Were So Sweet" as part of an exhibit, Double Vision, done in collaboration with the Great Plains Art Museum in 2010. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
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April 4, 2015 - 8:35am

Art can be a way to time travel. To look back into the past and see how an artist saw the world. Art can also be a way for contemporary artists to address history. As part of our occasional series, When Things Speak, Johanna Sawyer, curatorial assistant at The Great Plains Art Museum in Lincoln, talks about a piece she loves called  “The Promises Were So Sweet” by Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie that reinterprets historical photographs of Native Americans.

Music used in this piece is "What Does Anybody Know About Anything" by Chris Zabriskie / CC BY 4.0


(Photo courtesy Sheldon Museum of Art.)

This story is part of a series "When Things Speak" featuring curators and their stories about objects they chose for the Things Speak exhibit at the Sheldon Museum of Art

The Things Speak Exhibit closed on February 8, and  all objects featured in the exhibit have returned to their home collections.You can visit the Great Plains Art Museum Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm.

So this is a 19th century photograph by William Henry Jackson. And in it is a portraiture of a Pawnee native American man. He’s wearing a military uniform that has gilded buttons and rings, a beaded choker, and he has a buffalo robe on. The hands are folded. He just looks very stiff and very formal. William Henry Jackson did the portrait as a series to sort of educate Westerners about Native Americans. He documented like the idea of Native American peoples which obviously blurred the line between costume and reality. He did it for a long time.

And Hulleah has sort of altered the image by adding bright neon colors. A bright orange transparent circle is around the head. The eyes are kind of highlighted with a sort of teal as well. You know it’s a black and white photo and so that stark contrast just really draws you in to see what she’s highlighting and why in the image.

And then she’s printed the image on a poly-satin fabric, that really kind of almost gives a lightness to such a heavy and dark subject matter. Just like a shiny, really sturdy fabric. It almost looks like silk, but it’s actually very durable. Kind of flows and sways if you were next to it, so it’s kind of nice.

And then there’s a scroll of text and it says, “The promises were so sweet,” in kind of a cursive scroll. And then below that it says, “Two for one” and “The idea of an idea, or not.”

It feels so much more powerful to see Hulleah’s new interpretation of these original photographs. She alters the print in such a way that gives the voice back to the subjects. She really kind of gave me a new history lesson to think about in really, sort of unexpected way. I mean, I naturally would just think, oh this is an unfortunate photograph of a native American in costume, you know, btu when she gives the power back and the voice back, that was really refreshing to me, to kind of look at it without a sadness sort of. I haven’t seen that many contemporary artists do this sort of subject matter. I think  in general just giving a new name to a history of unspoken problems is sort of still a powerful statement in itself.



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