Tom Jones Reclaims Perceptions of the Tribe
Tom Jones: Here We Stand, hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts, explores the modern lives of Native Americans through the lens of one of the tribe, and is the first major retrospective of the Ho-Chunk photographer’s work. Comprised of parts of a dozen series from Jones’ body of work, it includes tribal elders, family life, spirituality, and ideas of cross-cultural appropriation. The pieces shift between documentary and conceptual, with an interest in challenging assumptions, exposing stereotypes, and revealing contemporary tribal experiences.
Jones, an accomplished artist, writer, curator, and educator, is also an enrolled member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. He was born in North Carolina but has Florida connections. He spent part of his youth in Orlando and members of his family once lived in St. Petersburg. At the age of 15, he moved to Wisconsin, which is the ancestral land of his tribe, later attending Columbia College in Chicago. His interest in photography developed at an early age as his father worked with Kodak and owned a photography lab. Starting in graduate school, he combined both interests to begin his lifelong journey of exploring and documenting contemporary Ho-Chunk life.
Jones’ black-and-white images are a deliberate reference to prior photographers, such as Edward Curtis (1868 – 1952), whose work showed “vanishing” tribes in staged photos of Native Americans in traditional dress, with no reference to the tribal life of the time. Jones wanted to create works imparting that Native Americans are very much a part of the present day, capturing almost candid photos of tribe members in their regular lives.
Jones’ first endeavor was to capture the elders as part of a photographic essay on the contemporary life of his tribe. In 1998, as a graduate student, he took a bus three hours to reach community land. One image, Choka Watching Oprah, is of Jones’s own grandfather, who was born in a wigwam. In the photo, an older man reclines on a couch in front of a small TV set, watching his favorite show.
He “loved to get his picture taken,” Jones says, “and at certain times he would actually tell me, ‘You know you should take a picture of this.’”
Another of his series, Remnants, features photos culled from the carpeting of casino floors. Casinos, which are often associated with modern tribes, are held only on trust land, where Jones was not allowed to bring his camera. The 8 x 10 images were captured on his cell phone, and within the framed glass above each picture, he includes a laser-etched pattern that makes a statement about Native American life in the era of casinos.
In the center of one room is the Ho-Chunk Veterans Memorial. Members of the tribe have fought for the country in all American wars except the War of 1812, when they sided with the British. Jones points out that Native Americans are one of the largest groups to participate in military service, preserving the warrior traditions of the tribes. He captures images of memorials left to those who served, which often include photographs of the deceased, many in uniform, along with service flags and medals. Cigarettes – modern-day tobacco offerings for the dead – are left by the graves.
“The idea is that anyone can come up and smoke and remember the deceased,” he says.
Strong Unrelenting Spirits is one of the artist’s most intimate series. Included is Green Mother, a photo Jones’ own mom. When the artist was a young child, his mother took him to a Sioux healing ceremony led by a medicine man named Robert Stead. As the women participants began to sing, the area was filled with bright, airy orbs, which, he explains, were the manifestation of the ancestor spirits. Each large photograph is embellished with beaded patterns that flow around the subjects.
“I’m using Ho-Chunk designs to give this a sense of the ancestors around us,” the artist explains. “I make the patterns in Photoshop first to create the beading template, which I then integrate with the photograph, and then I hand-stitch the beads on top.”
Dr. Jane Aspinwall, senior curator of photography for the MFA, adds, “Tom and I were talking about how you can see these on your phones and they are beautiful, but you really need to see these in person. As you walk by, your motion changes the perception of the pieces.”
One of the most insightful glimpses into Jones’ artistic knowledge and his artist statement comes in the conceptual series, I am an Indian First and an Artist Second.
“I am using inspiration from another Native American artist who said that he wanted to be known as an artist first, Native American second. I am flipping that idea around and am saying that I’m a Native American first, artist second,” he said.
The series is made of digital scans of the bottom of modern plastic toys of Native Americans. The viewer only sees the mystery of color and shape, while, during the creation process, Jones sees the figures “locked in ready combat.” The result is a rainbow of abstract shapes and colors.
“While the works may not look Native, there is Native thought and knowledge within it. This comes from my background in painting and alludes to artists who were inspired by Native American art. These include Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, who got the idea for doing the art on the ground after he saw a Navaho sand painting demonstration in New York. And, of course, every artist has to do a Jasper Johns,” he laughs, pointing to Fire Pit, a work depicting a series of concentric circles. In Disney, he uses the bottom of a Pocahontas toy to create a luscious orange stripe, contrasting with green and yellow constructs from other figures.
The show is a phenomenal experience that makes the viewer move through multiple perceptions of Native Americans, their lives, and their place in American society, both real and imagined.
“Jones’ photographs emphasize a solid generational commitment to family, tribal community, and land,” Dr. Aspinwall adds. “His photographs reclaim appropriated images and set the historic record straight.”
Tom Jones: Here We Stand runs through August 27 at St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts. For more on the museum of the exhibit, visit mfastpete.org.