The Triton Museum of Art’s Fall Exhibition Series Artist Reception on September 16th can be declared a rousing success. The museum was filled to capacity with eager art fans, curators, collectors, artists, and students – some of whom had flown in from around the country just to attend the party.
While the collections of Pancho Jimenez, Susan Parker, and Elaine Heron drew crowds, for many, the night’s highlight was the opening of Wendy Red Star’s exhibition “Strength Unity Power” which runs until October 30th. Wendy Red Star, a Crow artist originally from Billings, Montana has had exhibitions all across the country and abroad including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and the Foundation Cartier pour l’ Art Contemporian.
While Wendy Red Star’s work tends towards the personal, the Triton’s show invites audiences to become part of the display. The most poignant series in “Strength Unity Power” is “Grandmothers: I Come as One, I Stand as Ten Thousand” a collection of twenty Crow grandmothers originally photographed by Cree photographer Richard Throssel around 1911. Each of these women’s portraits has been magnified with the forms carefully cut out and applied to mirrors placed at eye-level in the Triton gallery space.
This particular series was deeply meaningful for Wendy Red Star: “I was the only native person in my college and then the only native person in my arts school, so when I first saw these photographs, I felt like even though I may have come alone, I had all these women behind me as well.” Interestingly, some of Wendy Red Star’s contemporaries are granddaughters of some of the women in the series. One granddaughter wrote a book on her grandmother, a medicine woman. But each of these portraits is important to Wendy Red Star for the stories they tell – “you can look at them and see a real innocence or a deep sadness.”
Wendy Red Star’s series is so successful thanks, in part, to her feeling of collaboration with the original photographer. “Unlike other photographers like Edward Curtis, [Throssel’s] photographs offered a new perspective on Crow women. He was adopted by the tribe. He dignifies the ladies, there’s a sense of confidence and comfort in these images. They got to wear their own clothing and even their hair is parted as Crow women do. But they were photographed in a turbulent time as the first generation on the reservation.”
By placing the images at eye-level and on mirrors, Wendy Red Star ensures that these matriarchs are truly “seen” and understood by audiences, rather than gazed upon in a typical voyeuristic museum experience. Instead, the Triton’s gallery display asks visitors to contemplate how we can all coexist. After all, each of these women is – both literally and figuratively – standing side by side with the viewer thanks to the reflection in the mirrors.
Continuing visitors’ connection to the Crow tribe are five elk-tooth dresses, a large headdress that serves as a tribute to a beloved uncle, and a tribal emblem. Each of the five elk-tooth dresses are hand-sewn by either Wendy Red Star herself or a family member. While the smallest piece was recently worn by the artist’s daughter at an August tribal celebration, each of them tells a story. Wendy Red Star explained, “These dresses – and the elk-teeth – were a status symbol bragging about the hunting skills of the husband. During the [reservation] period, the men couldn’t hunt, so the elk-teeth were carved out of wood and bone. Now, they are made of resin but they’re still worn to brag or show off while the women ride around on horses at the fair.” The choice to display the dresses in the middle of the room without glass around them was also a chance for visitors to remember that these pieces aren’t artifacts but as Curator Maria Ester Fernandez states, “contemporary representations of a vibrant culture situated in the present.”
Should visitors to the Triton wish to see more of Wendy Red Star’s work, they can also visit San Francisco State University’s Fine Arts Gallery until October 13th.