Edward Sheriff Curtis Inashah – Yakima copyright 1910, published 1911 Photogravure Volume 7 Portfolio, Plate 220
In the summer of 2017, the Muskegon Museum of Art exhibited, in its entirety, Edward Curtis’s masterwork The North American Indian. Comprised of 20 volumes of texts and thousands of images, including 723 large format photogravures in accompanying portfolios, The North American Indian recorded the lives, culture, and history of Native American Tribes from the Southwestern, Plains, and Northwestern United States in the early 20th century. For 30 years, Curtis traveled extensively, producing photographs, copious field notes, and wax cylinder recordings. Available by subscription, the project enjoyed initial success but Curtis was bankrupt and forgotten by the time the final volume was published in 1930. The surviving prints and plates were rediscovered in the 1970s, leading to a revival of interest that continues today. The Muskegon Museum of Art’s complete set was obtained in 1907, when Lulu Miller, the librarian of the Hackley Public Library, convinced the Muskegon Board of Education (who governed the library) to subscribe.
Awaiting Return of Snake Dancers Hopi
Modern scholarship reveals many of the flaws of Curtis’s work, products of the prevailing Euro-centric prejudices and attitudes of his time. Curtis’s intention to record and preserve the cultures of Native American Tribes before they vanished under a deliberate campaign by the United States government was commendable and ultimately successful. Ironically, his project also served to codify and perpetuate the dominant stereotypes of the time. As an artist and historian, Curtis staged images, edited contents to reflect his own intentions and pre-existing beliefs, and cloaked much of his product in a veil of romanticism. Curtis’s texts indeed preserved oral history, music, and language that may have otherwise been lost, but the cultural heritage of America’s Native peoples ultimately endured without his efforts, never “vanishing” as predicted by leading scholars of the day.
Self Portrait by Edward S. Curtis, copyright 1889, printed 1907. Photogravure. Collection of the Muskegon Museum of Art. Hackley Picture Fund Purchase. 1983.5.
Video Project: Sharing the Story
It was vitally important to the MMA and guest curator Ben Mitchell that our exhibition reflect not only the history of such a monumental artistic undertaking as The North American Indian but also the full range of controversies that surround it. Working with leading Native Indian scholars, artists, and West Michigan area Tribes, our team developed programming, content, and text that shared the fullest story possible with our viewers, while challenging assumptions and inviting new perspectives. The text developed as part of our exhibition appeared on panels throughout the galleries and was narrated by Ben Mitchell in a series of YouTube videos. As we look back on our successes and forward to our expanding future, these videos remain an important resource to understanding our permanent collection and shared cultural heritage.
You can find the entire series at the links below.
The Muskegon Museum of Art presented SONS: Seeing the Modern African American Male, portraits of black men from greater Muskegon photographed by artist Jerry Taliaferro, December 13, 2018 through March 10, 2019. We organized the exhibition with the advisement and help of a committee of African American men from the Muskegon area. In the spirit of community, we again present the SONS portraits in this virtual exhibition.
About the Exhibition
SONS was meant to explore how the black American male perceives himself and how others perceive him. At the time of the original exhibition, artist Jerry Taliaferro stated, “[The exhibition] is both timely and relevant. Recent events point to the urgent need for conversations about the contemporary black American male. Any effort, however humble, to foster an understanding of this largely misunderstood and often marginalized segment of the American population is of utmost importance.” The effort to foster understanding and respect is needed as much now as it was then.
A committee of their peers nominated the men pictured in the show from the greater Muskegon area. The goal was to portray a wide range of ages, backgrounds, occupations, and interests to best represent not only the black men of our community, but also to mirror the day-to-day experiences of their fellow Americans. It was the first time many of these men were publicly recognized.
The men pictured are artists, musicians, barbers, doctors, lawyers, health care workers, engineers, entrepreneurs, businessmen, teachers, athletes, retired servicemen, clergy, poets, factory workers, laborers, security guards, school administrators, and coaches. They are also husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, co-workers, teammates, friends, and neighbors.
The first part of the exhibition features black and white photographs that do not indicate professions or pastimes. The second part features color photographs with items and apparel indicate these activities, as well as expressing more of the subjects’ outward personalities.
Jerry Taliaferro was born in the small southern town of Brownsville, Tennessee. After graduating high school in May 1972, he joined the Army. He entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1973 and graduated as a member of the Class of 1977. Taliaferro’s interest in photography began during his post at Fort Bragg, North Carolina for Special Forces training in 1981. While serving in Germany, his interest in photography continued and, in 1985, his work was published for the first time when a Munich magazine purchased the rights to one of his images. Jerry returned to the U.S. and began doing assignments for advertising and design firms in 1985. He left the military in 1988 and began a career in commercial photography. Over the ensuing years, his interest turned more to fine art photography. This change in direction has resulted in several projects and published pieces. Women of a New Tribe, a photographic study of the spiritual and physical beauty of black women, is one of his latest projects. Jerry Taliaferro currently resides in Charlotte, NC.
Special thanks to the members of the SONS Committee, without which this exhibition would not have been possible: TJ Chappel, Jon Covington, Chris Dean, Arthur Garner, Ed Garner, Justin Jennings, Bernard Loudermill, William Muhammad, Marvin Nash, Dr. Dale Nesbary, Kelly Richards, J. Arthur Sanders, Andrew Sims, George Walker, Rodney Walker, James Waters, and Jonathan Wilson.
While our doors are temporarily closed to the public until further notice due to COVID-19, MMA staff continue to work behind the scenes. We are planning for the future and finding new ways to engage with our audiences until we can again welcome you into the galleries. This series of posts offers a look back at staff-favorite exhibitions and gives some insight into the hows and whys of what we do. The MMA staff selected these shows for how they have helped shape the Muskegon Museum of Art of today and serve as templates for our exciting future. It’s critical to note that none of these shows would have been possible without our generous sponsors and volunteers and our highly engaged museum community. Ultimately we exist to serve you: to educate, entertain, inform, inspire, surprise, and occasionally challenge.
Art Martin, Director of Collections and Exhibitions/Senior Curator