“Indian photography” needs a new meaning. Rather than referring to the hackneyed images that diminish Native people to Euro-American ideals, this term should refer to photography by Native Americans. That idea is the thread running through the works of artistWillWilson. Photography has long been at the center ofWilson’s expression; however, he has recently expanded into the realm of architecture, creating steel versions of Navajo hogans.
Wilson, whose father was Irish andWelsh and whose mother is Navajo, has an office at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe. He is the museum’s manager of the Vision Project, part of a Ford Foundation grant initiative called Advancing the Dialogue on Native American Arts in Society. In late January, Wilson learned he had been selected as one of 25 national recipients of a 2009 Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors grant. He is investigating possible uses for the award; one would be to create an “indigenous design studio.”
Born in San Francisco, Wilson lived on the Navajo Reservation from the age of 10. He attended the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Tuba City Boarding School. He first started using a camera, a Nikon FE2, when he was 15. The epiphany that turned him toward the craft came when a photojournalist friend took him to see a show of Joel-PeterWitkin photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “I was totally freaked out and fascinated,” he said. “I was like, who is this guy? These are amazing images. The little bio said he went to The University of New Mexico, and I thought, that’s what I’ll do. And I did.”
After five years at the BIA school, Wilson “got plucked off the rez,” he said. Through the A Better Chance program, his education was furthered at the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. “I had the opportunity to take a photography class there, then I focused on that in college. I went to Oberlin College. That was the first time I really got my eyes open to contemporary Native American art but also critical perspectives like postcolonial society — kind of a leftist, critical understanding of art. It gave voice to something in me that already existed.”
Wilson’s early predilection for documentary photography resulted in a body of work populated mostly with images of people he knew and of life on the reservation. At Oberlin, his confusion about how to make use of those photos was resolved. “I took a class with Edgar Heap of Birds, who’s actually one of the artists in the Vision Project. I was struggling with what I could do with these images of my family of friends and how to figure out a context for them to be viewed in and to protect them — to change the dynamic of this uncritical consumption of images of Native folks — and he encouraged me to do an installation.”
The resulting show at Oberlin consisted of photographs embedded in— and surrounding— a dirt pathway walled with sticks. There was a performance element, in which Wilson, naked and painted half-white and half-black, clambered around in the room’s rafters and recited a Leslie Marmon Silko piece about a witch at a conference of witches who tells an awful story in the time before the coming of the white man, basically predicting colonization. “Ever since then, I’ve kind of shown my work in the context of something more architectural or that envelops the viewer,” Wilson said.
After getting his bachelor’s degree at Oberlin, Wilson continued his studies at UNM, where he earned a master of fine arts in photograpy. When he got out of school, though, Wilson sort of felt cheated, because digital imagemaking seemed to suddenly be taking over everything. After grad school, he spent two years working as a stringer photographer for the Associated Press in Costa Rica. “When I came back, they wanted all these new MFAs to usher in the digital age, but I didn’t know how to do all that stuff.”
Since that time, Wilson has learned the ins and outs of digital photography, as evidenced in the large, archival pigment prints from his ongoing Auto Immune Response series. He was in Santa Fe a decade ago, teaching sculpture for a year at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is back, having recently moved from Tucson, where he created a large public-art project. His HZG (aka Hozhographos) Studio produced a 12,000-square-foot glass-tile photomosaic known as the Barrio Anita Community Mural Project. He also has gallery representation in Arizona, at the Berlin Gallery at the Heard Museum Shop in Phoenix.
Wilson said he is considering doing something in the public-art vein in New Mexico. Meanwhile, he is staying busy with the Vision Project. Museum of Contemporary Native Arts director Patsy Phillips assembled a “dream team” with Wilson as the project manager and Ryan Rice, the new curator of exhibitions and programs, as Vision Project director.
The team invited 60 Native American contemporary artists from the United States to be involved in the project. They run the gamut in ages, tribal affiliations, and art mediums. The team has selected 15 Native American scholars to produce essays about the artists. Those collaborations will yield five results: an informationalWeb site, a book to be edited by IAIA alumna Nancy Marie Mithlo, a traveling exhibition, a video project, and a downloadable curriculum. The time frame for completion is July 2011, Wilson said.
In his own recent work, Wilson indulges his interest in architecture— especially that of the Navajo hogan. He has
used the interiors of actual hogans, with their octagonal roofs of woven wood, as sets for his photographic portrayals, and he has built “art hogans” out of steel.
His Auto Immune Response series has evolved, as if the pictures are telling a story. In the first image, Wilson is shown gazing across the landscape—“kind of a postapocalyptic vision,” as he described it. In subsequent photographs, the protagonist finds a laboratory, and the people have prosthetic devices like gas masks that “enable them to interact with the landscape, even though it’s toxic. By the end of the sequence, he makes a house, which is actually the house my grandfather built,” Wilson said. “The general idea is that this is his laboratory and where he figures out how to get sustenance from the Earth.”
In some photos, we see an odd-looking bed or a chair. Wilson says these furnishings are woven of polyvinyl tubing— through which air and water are pumped, a reference to the body’s circulatory system.
“The idea is that Native Americans might be the canaries in the coal mine in relation to climate change and cultural migration,” he said. “It’s hard to respond to such incredible change, but I think that culture is responsive. Native Americans are doing crazy, amazing video production right now over on [the IAIA] campus, and that’s an evolution of culture.”
The latest version of his art hogan is a steel greenhouse, an herb garden. “The indigenous design studio I want to do would bring ... technology, art, and sustainability together,” the artist said. “I’d like to collaborate with the Native Seeds/SEARCH organization, which archives native seeds from all over the country, and any indigenous person can obtain seed there. So it’s transforming the hogan from the installation to a greenhouse and cultivating the seed.”
Wilson is also fascinated with earthships and straw-bale architecture and modernist prefab housing. “Yeah. That’s what I want to do,” he said. “I want to pull a trailer over to the IAIA campus, and we’ll gut it and then rebuild it, with a hogan greenhouse next to it.”
Will Wilson: Auto Immune Response #5, archival pigment print; images courtesy the artist
Auto Immune Response, mixed media installation
Wilson weaving a bed as part of the
Auto Immune Response
Three Broaches (Wilson at center with his grandmother on the right and a family friend, mid-1990s)