"Does being a Native person in the city affect your identity?" This is the question photographer Nadya Kwandibens (Ojibwe) seeks to explore in her photo series "Concrete Indians." Kwandibens' photographs (produced under the banner of her company Red Works Studios) have been commanding a lot of attention on Turtle Island lately, and the 'Concrete Indians' series has proven particularly resonant.
It all started in May 2008; Kwandibens was pondering the usual stereotyped images of Native peoples shown in mainstream media and she wanted to challenge those portrayals. "As an artist, I can promote a more positive image of all the diverse nations and all the different cultures that are us," she says. "When I first thought of this series, I had goose bumps, because it made me feel so good—I was like 'I have to share it.' I am just going to throw this idea out there and see what happens. So I sent out a mass email about it and within 10 minutes I got three replies back."
That’s when she knew she was onto something. Her concept was simple and open-ended: "Portraits of the urban Indian experience." She invited Native people to submit their own ideas of what such a portrait might look like for them. "What does being urban as a Native person do to you? Does it strengthen your identity?" she asks future participants.
The first city-dwelling Indian to answer the call was Toronto-based Actor/Producer Jennifer Podesmki (Salteaux). "She wanted to convey her routine," says Kwandibens. "She goes down the street to the Starbucks and sits there all morning working with her BlackBerry and her laptop, wearing her mukluks. Mukluks for her symbolize her Native identity."
Jacob Pratt (Dakota/Salteaux), a college student, model, and Native flutist, shot his portrait for the Concrete Indian series last year. "I came to her with my vision of how I see Native people in today’s world," he says. "The way I see it, Nadya's series is representing us as both traditional and modern people, and that is what inspired me to get involved." He chose to wear a suit jacket with a roach on the downtown streets of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
"I'm a modern person; I'm a business student, and business is very much a part of who I am now," he says. "But I am also a traditional dancer and a traditional man. And I wanted to blend those two things and show people that we can walk both walks, we can walk the traditional lifestyle in the modern society." Pratt says that the pictures Kwandibens is taking are helping to expand the public's idea of Native people. "It's not just hip hop and stuff like that. We can be professionals and still be traditional people living in today’s society, and be successful in the business world, or in any kind of way we want, while remaining grounded in who we are."
Knowing there are so many other stories like Pratt's that are yet to be told keeps Kwandibens going. "When I look back at some of the portraits, and when I read the ideas sent in by people I haven’t shot yet, it’s an overwhelming feeling of pride," she says. "Rarely do I hear from anyone who says they are losing their culture, they always have that strength and pride of who they are. That makes me happy and I know it makes others feel the same way.”
Though Kwandibens does not say she is seeking to photograph celebrities, many of her subjects are familiar faces from the creative community, among them the playwright/actor Waawaate Fobister (Anishinaabe), comedian/actor Darrell Dennis (Secwepemc), singer/songwriter Rosary Spence (Cree), designer Louie Gong (Nooksack/Squamish), and Longhouse Media co-founder Tracy Rector (Seminole/Mississippi Choctaw/Powhatan). Her series has thus far been shown in Toronto, Calgary, Cleveland, and Seattle, and she'd like to exhibit it all over the world; for now, you can see selections from the series at RedWorks.ca.
"My main goal is to share as much of the work as I can," she says, "because it means so much to me, and if it touches me, I think that it might touch a lot of other people too."
Urban Natives interested in submitting an idea for a portrait can e-mail Nadya at email@example.com.