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RETURN OF THE NATIVES

"Think Indian" and "I'm Indian and Proud of It" shout the bumper stickers on the back of a shocking-pink Ford station wagon. A large animal-hide drum protrudes from the back of the car. As we suspect, two Native Americans sporting long braids occupy the front seat.

This may be a common sight on the highways of the Southwest, but in the galleries of the Heard Museum it is a little unusual. The scene is actually a hand-colored photograph by Carm Little Turtle (Apache-Tarahumara) and part of the Heard's current exhibition, "Language of the Lens: Contemporary Native American Photographers."

Photography is not a medium immediately associated with Native American art, nor with the culture of Native Americans. What come to mind, if anything, are staged photographs of American Indians and their rituals--particularly nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographs taken by Anglo-Europeans of stiff family groups and individuals in their "Sunday best." (Several patronizing versions are currently on display in the Mesa Southwest Museum's "Territorial Arizona in 3-D" exhibition.)

The Heard's exhibition brings us up to date on the diversity of Native American art. Sure, the show contains the standard images of chiefs, squaws and braves on horseback. But these photographs have a purpose--to communicate the issues of contemporary Native American culture--and they employ photographic styles that range from traditional documentary to avant-garde photo-manipulation. Ten photographers from across North America compose the exhibition. Although many of them are active in the mainstream contemporary art world, they continue to be inspired by their distinct heritage. Additionally, they feel a responsibility to record and support a culture continually pressured by homogenization. Just as their styles differ, the artists' perceptions of Native American society range from nostalgic to political.

James Manning and Larry McNeil employ fairly straight techniques to illustrate Indian homelands and traditional crafts. Manning (Eskimo) captures moments of incredible beauty in the land of his people, as in a midnight-blue igloo scene. McNeil (Tlingit-Nishka) uses a sepia-toned process that adds an amber glow to his series of Alaskan basket weavers going about their craft. Richard Ray Whitman (Yuchi/Pawnee) is the most brutally realistic of the show; he refuses to romanticize or hide the problems of contemporary Indian life. His "Street Chief" looks like he lives on the street, in his cowboy boots amidst cigarette butts. This black-and-white photograph raises questions of the bicultural balancing act of contemporary Indians, along with the more universal issue of homelessness.

The remaining artists in the exhibition go a step further in style and meaning. They manipulate or stage their photographs to make personal and political statements. If you walk past Patricia Deadman's (Tuscarora) pictures too quickly, you'll miss their point. Her four-by-six-inch photographs of ceremonial dances are layered with paint and wax. The result is a swirling mass of color that both masks and enhances the portent of the rituals. She writes, "As a visual artist, I wish to re-evaluate the traditional aspects of Native culture which are internalized and proudly celebrated." Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Creek/Navajo) is at once the most political and the most mainstream artist in the exhibition. Tsinhnahjinnie's montages deal with several issues central to much contemporary art--the role of the mass media, ethnic and regional distinctiveness, existence in a postmodern world--but with a Native American slant. The screen of an old Philco television creates the frame of her photographs. On the screen are Tonto and the Lone Ranger, or two braves on horses against a map of former Indian territories, or two elderly women in full Navajo dress getting off the subway. These photographs address discrimination, stereotyping and the tenuous combination of Indian traditions with urban living.

There are a couple of square pegs in the exhibition. Fred Bia's (Navajo) black-and-white photographs are stiffly traditional--portrait busts of proud Indians in Navajo dress or Ansel Adams-like images of desert canyons. Their retrograde format and obliviousness to contemporary issues set them apart from the rest of the photographs.

Shelley Niro's (Bay of Quinte Mohawk) slightly out-of-focus images are gooey, sentimental compositions of mothers and children. In her statement she says, "Native people have to be seen for what is there." This is unquestionably true, but these images are saccharine in any context.

Despite these last two bloopers, the exhibition's curators have gathered a strong and varied collection of work by Native American photographers. Just as their styles differ, so the artists' backgrounds range from self-taught to internationally trained. Yet whether the artist lives in New York or Oklahoma, California or Alaska, each is drawn to convey Native American images in his or her photographs. That may mean braves on horseback or in bright-pink station wagons. After all, both are pertinent to the Native American experience.

Down the street from the Heard is another photography exhibition. This time it's a solo show of the work of local artist Marilyn Szabo, and it's at Norman's Fina Cocina, the restaurant that is the satellite gallery for MARS.

Szabo is a local photographer with a lot of talent, but little direction. Her use of the gelatin silver print technique is accomplished and varied. But that's the problem. Szabo has focused on all sorts of subjects, but she doesn't seem to have focused upon a coherent, theoretical grounding for her work.

The extensive exhibition is roughly divided into three themes. The first is a travelogue from her trip to Europe in 1989. Some of the images are thoughtful and inventive, but others are purely picture post-card material. The latter includes a photograph of the Eiffel Tower shot from beneath its steel arches and another of the quaint hill town of Schaffhausen in Switzerland. Such subjects are challenging fodder for photographers. They have been snapped so many times and are so impressive in their own right, that few photographs escape looking like tourist shots. If she fails with the major landmarks, Szabo triumphs with the details--the everyday elements that ultimately distinguish European culture from our own. Take a photograph of an empty butcher shop. The stark white interior is a perfect backdrop for the carving tools. Meat hooks hang menacingly, devoid of flesh--for now. What true-blue American isn't taken aback by the geese and rabbits hanging visibly in European butcher shops?

For the art enthusiast, Szabo pays a couple of amusing homages to modern masters in her Europe series. A bale of hay recalls the shimmering hay fields of Monet. And while in Paris, Szabo photographed the Daniel Buren installation of striped columns in the Grand Palais courtyard. Buren's columns forced vistors to see the familiar courtyard differently. Szabo's photograph adds yet another level of perception, an in-joke for the cognoscenti.

A large number of the photographs on display are part of Szabo's "Uncomfortable Places" series. The worst of these are sophomoric investigations of space and line--essential for the budding photographer but not always interesting for the viewer. These include a photograph of the corner of a balcony or the abstracted images of walls. However, once again Szabo pulls out the series with some winners. "Contemplations of a Greek Goddess" features a cheap, mass-produced lamp with a classical statue as its base. The formal effect of the light from the lamp combines with a subject that is humorous, and refers to our kitsch-fascinated age.

Finally, we arrive at Szabo's most inventive work--her portraits. Of these, her torso images have the greatest impact. Cropping the identifying faces, Szabo encourages sensual perusal of the human torso. It is like admiring the proportions of a headless classical sculpture, but the dimensions of Szabo's subjects are far from perfect. Nor are the surroundings very appealing. Take the images of Randi, a young woman lolling on a sofa. We overlook the hairy legs, the tube socks, the ugly leotard and the bulky sofa to notice the subtle ripples and angles of the human form.

So, what of the exhibition as a whole? Uneven, definitely, but it does have moments of inspiration. Szabo seems to be trying every style and subject that comes her way. Her energy is admirable, but a coherent artistic vision needs some thought. Her options are as wide open as the field of photography.

"Language of the Lens: Contemporary Native American Photographers" will be at the Heard Museum, 22 East Monte Vista, through March 24, 1991.

Photographs by Marilyn Szabo will be at Norman's Fina Cocina, 1330 North Central, through July 13.

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Heather S. Lineberry