Indigenous women and the camera

By Costa Maragos Posted: August 1, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Dr. Sherry Farrell Racette is professor in the Department of Visual Arts. Her class Indigenous Women and the Camera is offered in the Fall, 2017 semester.
Dr. Sherry Farrell Racette is professor in the Department of Visual Arts. Her class Indigenous Women and the Camera is offered in the Fall, 2017 semester. Photo courtesy Mike Latschislaw

Romanticized images of Indigenous women have endured for generations. Think of the myth of the postcard-perfect South Sea maiden, gazing out to the sea or the Indian princess, popularized in contemporary culture.

According to Dr. Sherry Farrell Racette, Indigenous women have had a “long and problematic relationship with the camera.”

Racette, a professor in the Department of Visual Arts, presents her Art History Class (ARTH390) “Indigenous Women and the Camera,” offered in the fall, 2017 semester. The class will examine how the ‘colonial lens created a visual legacy of exoticism and objectification.’

However, as Racette points out, women also sought the camera for their own purposes, seizing control of their own representation, and ‘speaking back.’ The course explores both legacies.
You state Indigenous women have had a ‘problematic’ relationship with the camera, historically speaking. What do you mean by that?

Our relationship with the camera was preceded by our relationship with the pencil and paintbrush, but the camera is generally seen as more accurate and “real”. The camera is a pretty interesting object. It has tremendous authority, but who holds it? Who presses the shutter? How did the person in front of the lens find themselves there? Who are the images being created for – who is the consumer? While images of men outnumber images of women significantly, and that a whole other legacy, those representations have come to define who we actually were – our essence. The earliest images of Indigenous women were either hypersexualized or romantic, and they are surprisingly resilient. Variations have morphed across generations of popular media.

Indigenous women on camera
 Cherokee female 1902 seminary graduating class from the Jennie Ross Cobb Collection. Courtesy of Oklahoma History Society.

What are some glaring examples of Indigenous women as seen through the ‘colonial lens?’

The lone expressionless woman gazing into the distance is one of the more benign recurring images, but colonial photography from Africa and the Pacific is particularly disturbing. Many were taken under the guise of “study” but began to circulate as 19th-century pornography. Some were taken by force – you can almost see the rifle behind the camera. There are striking similarities to images created around the world. Many contemporary Indigenous scholars and activists have equated violence against Indigenous women with violence against the land, and many of these images are a record of how deeply rooted this is.

Women, however, have taken a measure of control by turning the lens on themselves. And this is covered in the class as well. What difference do we see in the way Indigenous women are portrayed as a result?

Asiniy Iskwew (Rock Woman). Photo courtesy of Lori Blondeau, 2016
The earliest images are photographs taken by young women enjoying new technology. They provide a powerful contrast to sad, vanishing, sexualized images – laughing groups of friends wearing the dress of the day, photographs of family and community events. They are a testimony to resilience and vitality. As women began to engage with the camera as artists and filmmakers, they often directly or indirectly addressed the legacy of colonialism. Their work is incredibly powerful. The three Indigenous women who have represented their countries at the Venice Biennale, the art Olympics, are all lens-based artists.

You taught this class at the University of Manitoba. Now you are bringing it to the U of R for the first time. Why do you feel it is important for students to understand this aspect of the history of Indigenous women?

This is an area I want to develop at the University of Regina – my position is Indigenous Art Histories and I will teach in MAP’s Cultures of Display major. I’ve addressed issues of representation and how we change the message throughout my career. I developed the original course for the Women’s and Gender Studies program at the University of Manitoba as a way to critique photography and film from a feminist and Indigenous perspective, but also to celebrate the incredible body of contemporary work Indigenous women are creating around the world. Many students chose the major project option, creating their own photographs or curating mini-exhibitions. One did an animated short film. Only two were Fine Arts majors and they found it empowering to express themselves visually. I’m hoping to facilitate this again. I believe everyone working in the arts should have a firm grasp of this subject, but I’m hoping to attract students from a range of disciplines because I think this is for everyone.
Dr. Sherry Farrell Racette was recently appointed Professor of Visual Arts  – Indigenous Art Histories and Cultures of Display in the Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance. Farrell Racette comes to the U of R from the University of Manitoba where she was cross-appointed to Native Studies and Women and Gender Studies. She has taught at the U of R as well as First Nations University of Canada and the Gabriel Dumont Institute. Welcome back to the U of R Sherry.