NEW YORK - An exhibition of photographs by Richard Ray Whitman is currently being shown through Feb. 1 at National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Whitman, who is a painter, photographer, video artist, and poet, first gained notice for his "Street Chiefs" (1973) series on the homeless Indians of Oklahoma. He lives in the Yuchi community of Gypsy, Okla.
The exhibition is made up of photo images that Whitman ran through Photoshop and then changed including "Street Chiefs," which shows what would have been great warriors defeated by the modern world, the "Messenger" series, which are treated photos of dead birds and coyotes, which gives the feeling that the once-sacred animals have been turned to road kill before their messages could get to the Indian people, and "Observance," a series of photographs showing the shadows of figures from ancient Petroglyphs existing in today's world. "I had these images I had been scanning into Photoshop," Whitman told Indian Country Today. "I wanted to take the process a little further, to play with them and enhance them. I just didn't want to work with black and white photos. I told the curator that I didn't have a particular direction I am working in. As an artist I want to have the latitude to do whatever I want to do whether the obvious Indian signs there are readable or not."
The exhibition is a part of the museum's Continuum Series, which features exhibitions of 12 contemporary Native artists who knew, worked with, or were influenced by George Morrison (1919-2000) and Allan Houser (1914-1994), two masters of contemporary Native art. "I'm in good company in the Continuum series, but ironically, I'm probably the only one in the group that has any reference to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe," Whitman said. "I was out there from 1968-1970 at the school, then I stayed there for another couple of years. I caught the tail end of the heyday. My brother was in Vietnam and I had seen an issue of Life magazine in 1967 and it had a five or six page spread of the IAIA. 'Return of the Redman' was the title of the piece. My local draft board said that because my brother was in Vietnam I couldn't be drafted, so they asked me if I considered going to school, which I hadn't. Normally, the local school they would have sent me to would have been Bacone, but they would have assigned me on to Okmulgee Tech for commercial art, there was no such thing as a fine artist, you had to be a technical artist. So I saw this article and I didn't have a strong high school transcript, and that was one of the drawing points of the institute at the time; if you had a strong portfolio and a weak high school transcript, they would still accept you. It was a new model, and a departure from the usual Indian boarding school, you know; 'Kill the Indian.' It was a new model to embrace our culture."
While Whitman knew Houser, he never formally took a class from the groundbreaking artist. "I never took sculpture under Houser, but I took ceramic sculpture and I was in the studio next to his," Whitman said. "At that time to be an 'artist,' you had to be a visual artist, a painter. Once I arrived in Santa Fe there were all these other disciplines and mediums and genres; there was creative writing, dance, theater. I wouldn't say it was single-handedly, but Houser did resurrect sculpture. He took an interest in me, I may have been a bad student in some ways, but I was a good art student in other ways. He came to my rescue a few times. I was getting kicked out one time and he came and spoke for me at the committee meeting. He understood the confusion of young Indian minds."
After the IAIA Whitman went to Cal Arts and began hanging out at UCLA where there was a very active Indian Student organization. "Next thing you know, Wounded Knee happened, and my path took me up there during all the shooting. That was very impactful. I think a lot of people thought it was going to be a weekend up there," Whitman laughed. "After that I didn't return to Cal Arts, I stayed in South Dakota. Once again, it was the dynamics of its times."
Whitman saw how the Native art movement changed its direction from the creative high in Santa Fe in the late 1960s to where it became a less creative art commodity in the 1980s. "In Santa Fe there was a shift. They began to rehash images from the 1960s and 1970s. There was a void there and there was a market for it. In the '80s we saw some of the highest rates going for Native art in Santa Fe, all the rich Texans were buying it up, then all of that fell out. I think there were good things going on in Indian county, in the northwest and the northeast, and across Canada.
"We need museum curators, our own critics, and our own writers, and museum studies are a great step for that, and IAIA has made some inroads that way. But in the 1980s, I'm not so sure. The IAIA was about breaking the limitations imposed on us but we later re-imposed the same limitations on ourselves. It stalled, but it also stalled in the non-Indian art world too. In the 1980s I wouldn't compromise my work, so I would do any other kind of work, I did construction and labor jobs. I had gone that so far I couldn't turn back."
Whitman's uncompromising spirit has paid off as he is now one of the strongest voices in Native art. For more information on the Continuum Series, visit nmai.si.edu.