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William R. Wilson: Navajo Artist of the Post-Apocalypse

A Navajo man in a gas mask stares into the camera, the land sprawling behind him in a luminous haze of post-apocalyptic beauty. The same man sleeps inside a hogan, on a mattress of light. Then the man, still in his gas mask in the hogan, works intently on his laptop.

These striking examples of visual storytelling are photographs from Navajo artist William R Wilson’s series “Auto-Immune Project.”

“The series is about this guy, who is played by me, who is this post-apocalyptic Navajo man just trying to figure out what happened, why the world is so toxic, so uninhabitable." Wilson said.

With Native Arts and Culture Foundation funding, he will travel to Navajo country this summer and create photographs that document more of this post-apocalyptic Navajo man’s story. The journey will take Wilson to the four sacred mountains, as well as to energy resource extraction sites and coal firing plants.

The title, “Auto-Immune Response” helps explain the work, Wilson says.

"Native American populations are disproportionately affected by auto-immune diseases, diabetes being the best known. It’s also associated with sudden cultural economic and environmental changes, transitions. But my work is also about a response—how we work to survive through that process."

In his journey, the post-apocalyptic Navajo man ends up building two hogans and turns them into greenhouses, which will be exhibited at the Denver Botanical Gardens and at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“My work is a response to the ways in which photography has been used as a mechanism of colonization,” Wilson writes on his portfolio page at the University of Arizona website.

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“For Indians, I want to produce experiences that bring us close to home, while unsettling us with the evidences of colonization. I want my work to strengthen Indians with examples of resistance, and the possibilities of controlling one’s own representation. For non-Indians I want to call into question the uncritical consumption of images of American Indians both positive and negative.”

His own exposure to the power of photography began when he was five years old and visited the home of a friend in San Francisco whose mother was an aspiring photojournalist.

“I used to spend hours and hours looking through her contact sheets and being fascinated by them as entrance points for all these stories.”

Wilson grew up both in San Francisco and in Navajo country near Tuba City, Arizona, where his grandfather had a sheep camp. After receiving a grant to study at an East coast prep school, he earned his MFA from the University of New Mexico. He has worked as an international photojournalist and taught photography at Oberlin College, the University of Arizona, and the Institute of American Indian Arts. Currently, he is directing the Vision Project at the Institute of American Indian Arts, which brings together 60 Native artists and their work.

As an artist, Wilson tells a story not just with photographic images, but in three dimensions, incorporating traditional items like the hogan into his installations. He has also partnered with muralist Josh Sarantitis and community members of Barrio Anita near downtown Tucscon, Arizona, to create an 12,000 square foot mural which uses glass mosaic in a colorful expression of community vision.

Photography’s move to digital technology in the last few years, he believes, has changed both the expectations of photographers and the role of photography itself. Not only are photographers increasingly expected to understand video and sequential imagery, but the ease and accessibility of photography has made it easier for everyone to tell their own story.

For Native photographers, this has helped to reverse the old colonial paradigm of being the object but not the subject of the image, Wilson says.

“I think it’s really important for people to be able to create their own view of the world. I’ve always had this central idea that we come from these oral cultures where what you say and what you put out there in the world is often really kind of important, and you have to be careful about it because it’s kind of a sacred thing. You invest all that time and energy and creativity into creating these images and art, but you know you’ve got to be mindful of what you do. I still think that’s the case.”