23 January 2005

Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole-Muskogee/Dine)

ICT [2005/01/19]??Photographer focuses on 'what's been and what still can be'

Posted: January 19, 2005 
by: Jean Johnson / Indian Country Today 

  PORTLAND, Ore. - Amnesia. While the word practically rolls off the tongue, its meaning is dark: ''Partial or total loss of memory caused by brain injury, or by shock, repression, etc.'' Clearly it's not the brain injury part that piques Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie's interest. ''I really hope that my photography brings out how we need to think about each other and issues that are political,'' Tsinhnahjinnie said. ''If we forget who we are, then who are we?''

Tsinhnahjinnie - born into the Bear and Raccoon clans on her mother's side in the Seminole and Muskogee nations, and born for the Tsinajinnie clan on her father's side in the Dine (Navajo) Nation - titled only one of her photographic series done under an Eiteljorg fellowship in 2003 as ''Portraits Against Amnesia.'' But the artist and photographer has dedicated her life to not forgetting. To what in her words is, ''Not a picture of what isn't any more, but of what's been and can still be.'' Said Tsinhnahjinnie of ''Hotaday'', one of the pieces in ''Portraits Against Amnesia.''

Tsinhnahjinnie's father, Andrew, is one of the artists who emerged out of the Dorothy Dunn studio in Santa Fe during the 1930s. From him Tsinhnahjinnie gets her interest in art. From her mother, she got the stories. ''What my mother and aunt did was they would tell stories about their relatives,'' Tsinhnahjinnie said. ''In my mind they would almost turn into television. I would see these handsome brown women and strong brown men with smiles that could carry the day.''

This optimistic, yet unflinching, stance has propelled Tsinhnahjinnie into national and international circles and more recently, since she earned an MFA from the University of California at Irvine in 2002, into the plum position of director at the C.N. Gorman Museum at UC Davis. C.N. Gorman was the noted Navajo artist and father of R.C. Gorman known for his paintings of Southwest Indian women.

In her lead role at the university museum, Tsinhnahjinnie will continue doing what she's always done: ''Address issues related to family, sovereignty and land.'' The difference will be, though, that as director, she'll be able to bring attention to a range of Native artists.

Dressed in black with bobbed hair shot through with silver, Tsinhnahjinnie looks through wire-rimmed glasses. ''To be able to showcase strong artists is a privilege,'' she said. ''The main thing is to make Native art available and have people come and see it. The venues where you can see Native art are really few and far between.''
Tsinhnahjinnie should know, she's been showcasing her own art for more than 30 years. As she puts it ''photography is my primary language.'' In October, her ''Portraits of Amnesia'' 2003 series hung with work of other Native artists in Portland's Lewis and Clark College's bicentennial exhibition titled, ''Encounters.'' Compelling and often disturbing works made from superimposing enlarged vintage photographs from postcards over various backgrounds, connected with viewers at a visceral level.

And over the past year Tsinhnahjinnie also showed her work at the Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand, in Canada, and in New York City. In 1998 Tsinhnahjinnie photos were included in a major photographic exhibition of Native images at the Barbicon Art Gallery in England: ''Native Nations: Journeys in American Photography.''

''This was the first major Native exhibition to the extent that they did it. They put a lot of money into it, and the catalog was basically a book,'' Tsinhnahjinnie said. ''They had vintage work on the top level of the gallery and contemporary on the lower.'' Tsinhnahjinnie's work was included in the contemporary offerings and helped infuse this comprehensive showing with a dimension that speaks to the depth of indigenous experience in America.

''It's about due process,'' said Tsinhnahjinnie said of another one of her more recent pieces, ''Damn I Keep Dreaming of Three Cherries'', which is aimed at 19th century horrors. Atrocities that continue to plague Indian-white relations more than many recognize.

''In Minnesota when they gathered everyone all up into concentrations camps, the young men got pissed off and went and killed a bunch of settlers. President Lincoln had to decide what to do. If they killed too many Indians, all hell would break loose. If they killed none, same thing,'' Tsinhnahjinnie said. ''So Lincoln chose a number indiscriminately - 36 - and hung that many. That included Little Six and Little Crow who people from outside said were leaders in the attack. So they were hung, too. Without due process.''

Now over a century later, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux tribe's casino goes by the name of Little Six in honor of the martyred chief. While that could be a development in history that could give some solace to Minnesota's first Americans, Tsinhnahjinnie explained that was not the case. ''What happened was the state went after them on taxes. They want a piece, still,'' said Tsinhnahjinnie. ''That's where the word sovereignty comes in. Again it's all about how it continues to be the lack of due process.''

Not only does Tsinhnahjinnie train her lens on wounds of the past and how they remain in the present, she also focuses on joy. The First People's Fund, that recognizes artists throughout Indian country, tapped Tsinhnahjinnie in 1999 - 2000 as one of its first honorees for ''being a creative powerhouse in her community,'' according to Susan Lobo who nominated her. Since then, Tsinhnahjinnie has added staff photographer to her resume. She makes annual trips around the nation to photograph individual artists as they are added to the ranks of those First People's Fund commend for giving back to their communities.

''When I go visit these people, the journey is incredible. When I went to go find Murial in Rosebud, it was hard looking for her little house. You can get depressed going through the town there because it doesn't seem like there's much hope - junk cars and everything,'' Tsinhnahjinnie said. ''So they said she lived down the road. And I finally found it. A house with big old flowers painted all over it. Lavender, red, magenta. Not only on the outside of her house, but in her life. Her students made masks, and they changed themselves.''
Tsinhnahjinnie continued with her observations on art and community and Indians. ''When one is an artist and decides to be political, it is truly caring about what you believe in. It's not about making money or being in the limelight,'' she said. ''And if any of my images inspire people to go to the end of the universe, I'll be glad,'' she said. ''Because sometimes you have to go where you've been told not to.''

©2005 Indian Country Today


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