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Learn more about Indigenous photography from this new exhibit at Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum

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Copyright: Thomas Ryan Redcorn
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"Everett Waller, Hominy Whipman", a 2021 print by Ryan RedCorn, is the largest piece in the exhibit "Speaking with Light" at the Amon Carter Museum.

The Amon Carter has thousands of works representing Native Americans. But very few were actually made by Indigenous people. A new photography exhibit, "Speaking with Light," at the museum attempts to address that disparity.

Explore more stories from Arts Access.

The exhibit is called Speaking with Light and it features more than 30 contemporary Indigenous artists.

John Rohrbach is senior curator of photographs at the museum. He co-curated this show.

"The exhibition comes rooted in the museum's recognition that it has more than 6,000 photographs of Indigenous peoples across the United States, most of these being made in the 19th through the mid 20th century," he said. Less than 5 percent of the images were made by Native Americans.

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Amon Carter Museum of American Art
"Get Comfortable", a 2012 print by Nicholas Galanin, is one of the first pieces visitors see in "Speaking with Light," at the Amon Carter Museum.

That lack of control over who's behind the camera has real-world consequences.

Take Jessica Johnson. She's Native American, and co-host of a show called Bows and Arrows at KNON radio station. She said these historic images are sometimes hard to look at. She attended a preview of the new show.

"A lot of times when I go to museums, I'm a little concerned about what I'm going to see and how I'm going to feel," she said. "Because a lot of times it's Native culture in the past tense, and so I maybe get upset."

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Galilee Abdullah
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KERA
Jessica Johnson attended the preview for "Speaking with Light" at the Amon Carter Museum.

"Speaking With Light" aims to start changing experiences like Johnson's. It seeks to challenge past depictions, and the ways they contributed to demeaning stereotypes. The multimedia exhibition has over 70 works by artists who are reclaiming Indigenous representation.

Ryan RedCorn, a photographer and writer for the hit Hulu show "Reservation Dogs," has work in the exhibit. He previously told The Dallas Morning News that he’s grown tired of Indigenous people “being told you’re helpless or useless and there’s nothing you can do about it, and everything that’s happening to Indigenous people is inevitable.

“That kind of storyline is really harmful, not even truthful, not even factual, and doesn’t really account for the way that I experience my own community, or that the world experiences my community or my experience within my own community.”

Will Wilson, a photographer and educator, co-curated the exhibit. He's Diné - a citizen of the Navajo Nation.

One section of the exhibition draws attention to the past, displaying some of the Amon Carter's large collection of delegation photos. These were taken in the early 1900s to document and celebrate treaty negotiations, which often were unfavorable to Native Americans. The photos were usually made by white people, said Wilson.

"We wanted to point to that history and say 'Hey, this sovereignty has been intact since before the beginning of the United States, and it's happening now too.'"

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Galilee Abdullah
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KERA
Will Wilson (left) and John Rohrbach co-curated the "Speaking with Light" exhibit.

Survival and resistance are important through-lines in Native American history.

There's even a word for it, coined by Indigenous scholar Gerald Vizenor: "Survivance." That's central to the another part of the exhibit, said Wilson.

Survivance speaks to an Indigenous audience, but also to the settler colonist, who is "reminded very forcefully that, hey, we're still here, you've stolen our land, you've tried to kill us. But we're resisting, we're surviving," said Wilson.

The exhibit also explores what it means to see - and photograph - through an Indigenous lens.

One example is "Water Memory," a 2015 print by Chemehuevi artist Cara Romero. In it, two Pueblo corn dancers float in the ocean. It represents the flooding of thousands of Native American homes in Southern California after the construction of the Parker Dam.

Cara Romero, Water Memory,  2015, inkjet print, P2021.54, copyright Caro Romero.tif
Amon Carter Museum of American Art
"Water Memory", a 2015 print by Cara Romero. The piece reckons with a tragedy, while also looking at the relationship between water and Native Americans.

For the Amon Carter, "Speaking with Light" marks an ongoing effort to work with Indigenous artists, said Rohrbach, the curator. The museum has acquired more than 80 percent of the work on display.

But what about Jessica Johnson, who hasn't always appreciated the way Native Americans are portrayed at museums?

"So the common perspective when you think of Native Americans, and this happens to me is, 'Oh my gosh, do you have a spirit animal? What is your Native name? Do you identify to the earth and all the colors of the wind?' And that's frustrating," she said. "I feel like in this exhibit, it kind of breaks some of those perceptions."

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Galilee Abdullah
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KERA
Jessica Johnson says she really enjoyed the exhibit and found it inspiring.

"Coming here today to this exhibition, I'm elated, because they're Native photography by Native artists, and it's not just Indigenous culture that is reflective of the past, it is of the present and the future, and so that's really inspiring."

Johnson said she hopes people go. It might broaden their perspective on the complexities of modern Indigenous life.

DETAILS: The exhibit is up through January at the Amon Carter museum in Fort Worth.

Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Galilee Abdullah is a producer for KERA's "All Things Considered" and evening newscasts.