The Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg is currently showing an impressive collection of work from photographer Tom Jones. The photos, in multiple series, focus on Native American identity, history, cultural appropriation, and the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, of which Jones is a member. The work engages visually while also being informative.
From the museum’s press release for Tom Jones: Here We Stand–
For over twenty years, Tom Jones has created a visual record and exploration of his Ho-Chunk community. Born in North Carolina and raised in Orlando after a short stint in Minneapolis, Jones returned to the Midwest, moving to Wisconsin at age 15. He then made his way to Chicago for graduate school at Columbia College. Jones’s father worked with Kodak and owned a photography lab, helping shape the artist’s understanding of the practical aspects of photography from an early age. During graduate school, Jones began an ongoing photographic essay on the contemporary life of his Ho-Chunk community, beginning first with the elders.
The show comprises over a dozen series, ranging from the documentary to the conceptual. Of his series on Veterans’ memorials at the annual Black River Falls Pow-Wow, Jones says, “I was interested in the way families made very conscious decisions about how they want their loved ones memorialized.” Other series include the emotionally intimate, though larger than life, beaded portraits. “Beading is a metaphor for our ancestors watching over us. I am also referencing an experience I had when I was about 8 or 9 years old. My mother took me to see a Sioux medicine man named Robert Stead. He led the call to the spirits, the women began to sing, and the ancestors appeared as orbs of light. This event inspired the series Strong Unrelenting Spirits.“
Jones’s photographs examine identity and geographic place with an emphasis on the experience of Native American communities. He is interested in how American Indian material culture is portrayed through commodification and popular culture. Much of his work counteracts and corrects decades of misinformation and misrepresentation of American Indians, particularly targeting the field of U.S. history. Jones’s critical assessment of the romanticized representation of Native peoples in photography re-examines historic pictures taken by white photographers. This reassessment questions the assumptions about identity within the American Indian culture by non-natives and natives alike. “While each of Jones’s series is distinctly different, the message remains consistent: the Ho-Chunk are not vanishing or frozen in time,” said Dr. Jane Aspinwall, Senior Curator of Photography. “Jones’s photographs emphasize a solid, generational commitment to family, tribal community, and land. His photographs reclaim appropriated images and set the historical record straight.”
Below are a some selections from a few of the series in the exhibition.
About the Dear America series pictured above-
Using each line from the first two verses of the song, America (“My Country Tis of Thee”) as the title of fourteen of the works in the Dear America series, Jones questions whose history is being propagated here. With dry wit and an unfailing commitment to truth, Jones exposes atrocities like the massive effort by the U.S. government to assimilate Native American children to non-Native culture, the merciless seizing of Native lands, and the mass hanging of thirty-eight Sioux and Ho-Chunk men under President Lincoln in 1862. He also highlights Native American identity in relation to cowboy culture, the thoughtless misappropriation of Native American customs, and the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy on the U. S. Constitution. Jones’s aim is to broaden the “traditional” historical American narrative to be more representative of all people, especially the original inhabitants of this land.
About the Ho-Chunk Veterans Memorials, pictured above-
“I wanted to do this photographic essay to honor our veterans… One in four American Indian males is a United States veteran. Ho-Chunks have fought in every war for the United States except for the War of 1812. The Ho-Chunks did this even though they were not granted the right to vote until 1924, and during the Indian Removal Act, were removed at least seven times from Wisconsin by the United States government. This is the conviction we have as a people… I honor these people who give of themselves freely to protect this land. Traditionally, Ho-Chunks are taught to live their lives for the betterment of others. The veterans have done this.’
About the “Native” Commodity” series-
The Wisconsin Dells, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state, is home to spectacular natural scenery and the largest concentration of waterparks. Located on Ho-Chunk ancestral land, the area is now highly commercialized, with much of its identity resting on the appropriation of Native American stereotypical tropes. In this series, Jones documented this unabashed use of Native American symbols, images, and place names in advertising and popular culture. The sale of “Native American” crafts made in China, the liberal use of names of historically important figures like Black Hawk, and the indiscriminate mix of tribal communities into one conglomerate-tipis from the Plains next to totem poles from the Pacific Northwest next to Pueblo pottery. The Dells serve as a microcosm for how images of Native Americans are reproduced and reframed into a collective memory that is often distorted. Jones wryly noted that none of the Native American objects feature anything specifically attributable to the Ho-Chunk Nation.
This exhibition has been extended until 9/10/23.