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Visual Edge: Photographic presence and contemporary Native Americans

Matika Wilbur's "Project 562" debuts at Tacoma Art Museum

Matika Wilbur, "Mary Evelyn Belgarde" (Pueblo of Isleta and Ohkay Owingeh), 2014. Digital silver image, 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

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Matika Wilbur's "Project 562" is an ambitious and fascinating photographic study of Native American culture and an equally ambitious artistic project of which Tacoma Art Museum is fortunate to be able to present to the world the inaugural exhibition.

Wilbur is a Native American with connections to the Tulalip and Swinomish tribes. Over the past year she has traveled more than 60,000 miles in the Western United States taking photographs of contemporary American Indians in their home environments, be those environments the reservation, Southwestern plains or urban or suburban America. Wilbur's intent is to document the lives of contemporary Indians in each of the to-date 566 federally recognized Native American tribes through portraits of boys, girls, men and women (and, I would hope, gender-ambiguous two spirits honored by many Native cultures).

Wilbur began photographing members of the Coast Salish Elders for the "We Are One People" project after her late grandmother, a prominent Swinomish leader, appeared to her in a dream and urged her to come home and photograph her people.

The title, "Project 562," reflects the number of federally recognized Native tribes when she started the project; as of this writing that number has increased to 566. She has now photographed members of more than 150 tribes, with many more to go, so this exhibition is just a beginning of a much larger project. To date she has focused her cameras on the Southwest, Hawaii, Montana, California, and the Puget Sound region. She asks each person photographed how and where they want to be pictured, whether in contemporary or traditional clothing. She also records interviews with her subjects, and the interviews are included as an audio portion of the exhibition.

"It is said that history is dead and that nature can't really speak," Wilbur says. "For prominent society, Indians occupy a silent and isolated, covered over, virtually extinct existence, part of the grievous though inevitable eradication of ‘manifest destiny' and which most abandon to history. But Native America is utterly enduring, alive, and thriving as part of the core concept and reality of America."

>>> Matika Wilbur, "Adrienne Keene" (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), 2014. Digital silver image, 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

TAM director Stephanie A. Stebich says, "Matika Wilbur's comprehensive and creative work opens the door to a new, genuine understanding of the lives of Native Americans today."

From Mary Evelyn Belgarde of the Pueblo of Isleta and Ohkay Owingeh tribes displaying her oneness with nature through her proud stand amidst sage brush to the beautiful Star Flower Montoya of the Pueblo of Taos and Barona Band of Mission Indians in a prayerful pose, to Stephen Yellowtail of the Crow Nation looking like a pensive cowboy contemplating the future of his homeland, the people I saw pictured in this exhibition represent dignity of a diverse people united by their care for one another and for the land upon which they live.

Wilbur's photographs are excellently composed with strong contrasts and subtle nuances of gray tones. What she is beginning to do for Indians with this project is much the same as what Walker Evans did with his celebrated portraits of migrant workers during the Great Depression. As sociological documentation they are unique and destined to become a vital record of America's history.

"MATIKA WILBUR'S PROJECT 562," 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 5-8 p.m. third Thursday, through Oct. 5, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific ave., Tacoma, $8-$10, 253.272.4258,

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