A Study of Indian-ness
January 6 - 28 2006
"Jeff Thomas talks frequently of wanting his work to be a bridge spanning the gap between the images of Aboriginal peoples in museum and archive collections and the Aboriginal community. He connects the notion of history as story to the way he learned as a child living between urban Buffalo and the Six Nations Reserve. On Six Nations, he was taught, often by powerful women in the community, to take pride in Haudenosaune (Iroquois) culture. On the streets of Buffalo, however, he could find no signs of this history. He recalls asking one of his elementary school teachers, Miss Eckles, Why don't we learn about Iroquoian history?" His teacher replied, "Jeff. I don't know. You are going to have to find that out for yourself." He remembers feeling crushed at the realization that nobody was going to be able to answer his questions about his own history. For him, contrary to the romantic notion, that history is an urban one. He reflects on the challenges his parents and grandparents raced trying to find a place for themselves in the city. For those generations, he reminds us, "there was no manual or pamphlet that said, Okay, this is how you survive as a First Nations person in the city." For Thomas himself, the struggle, which he has turned into a life's work, is to engage the place of Aboriginal history and identity in the city."
- RICHARD WILLIAM HILL
This text is excerpted from A Study of Indian-ness, published by Gallery 44. See full text online at www.gallery44.org
Jeffrey M. Thomas is an Iroquois/Onondaga photographer, curator, and cultural analyst, born in Buffalo, New York and now living in Ottawa. His personal photographic practice is concerned with showing the perspective of an urban Iroquoian person. Thomas's research explores various historical cultural resources in order to bring voices, stories, and perspectives into the present. He has works in major collections in Canada, the United States, and Europe including such institutions as the National Gallery of Canada's Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, and the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne. Recent solo exhibitions include Scouting for Indians at Oakville Galleries in Ontario (2004), Lurking in the Shadows at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne (2001), and Geronimo Was Here (2001), in Buffalo, NY. He has also been in many group shows, including Images of the American Indian at the Birchfield-Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY, and Crossing Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life, a touring exhibition. In 1997, he was the subject of a documentary film by All Kazimi entitled, Shooting Indians: A Journey with Jeffrey Thomas, which premiered in the Toronto International Film Festival.
In such curatorial projects as Emergence From the Shadow: First Peoples' Photographic Perspective at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and Aboriginal Portraits at the National Archives of Canada, Thomas has mined the archival vaults of non-Native visual and written records to recover lost elements of Aboriginal history. Thomas is also an internationally-recognized consultant in the interpretation of historical and contemporary aboriginal cultural materials. From his acclaimed 2002 traveling exhibition Where are the Children? Healing the Legacy of the Residential Schools, produced by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the National Archives of Canada, to curatorial interventions such as No Escapin' This: Confronting Images of Aboriginal Leadership, in the Canadian galleries of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Thomas explores the ways in which present-day audiences confront histories and representations. His work involves close readings of anthropological photographs and practices, as well as the recovery of cultural identity. Past work in Manitoba includes photographic contributions to the 1991 Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. Thomas has also explored contemporary Plains identity in his study of powwow dancers, which resulted in an exhibition produced by the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature entitled Strong Hearts: Native Visions and Voices.