Phoebe Farris

Art should reveal the unknown, to those who lack the experience of seeing it.

-Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith

Dr Phoebe Farris is an artist, scholar, independent curator, art therapist, author, and editor. By pursuing areas in which she is passionate, Farris has had an exciting and enviable career. For 22 years she worked at Purdue University (USA) and notes this time as the highlight of her professional life allowing her to travel to various countries, meet like-minded professors and artists and collaborate with them on projects of mutual interest.

Farris comes from a family of literary and visual artists. Once a painter/printmaker, she replaced the brush and roller with a camera. The immediacy of this instrument allows her to capture experiences in the moment as well as to document pieces of social and cultural history. With an artistic eye, scholarly sensibility, and personal interest in the people, events and structures that are the objects of her photography, Farris focuses on imagery that is both educational and aesthetically pleasing.  

Longest Walk, Malcom X Park (1998),  photograph

Currently, Farris is one of 39 artists whose works are featured in the travelling exhibition, The Map Is Not The Territory, Parallel Paths: Palestinians, Native Americans, Irish. I asked Farris to talk about this exhibition, her other work, challenges she faces as a photographer and curator and her opinion on the U.S. media’s representation of Native Americans since the beginning of the 21st century.

Longest Walk II, Speaker on the Capital Grounds  (1998), photograph

As Farris discusses her motivation for participating in The Map Is Not The Territory, Parallel Paths: Palestinians, Native Americans, Irish, she also provides us with insight into social injustices currently experienced by Native Nations throughout the Americas. Cessation of land did not stop with the federal government in the 1830s, but continues even now. Land remains susceptible. History remains vulnerable.

"The theme interested me because of the common experiences of land and language loss experienced by the three populations," she says. "On a personal level, I felt a connection because my mother's maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Cork County, Ireland."  

"Wigwams like this were used by most Algonquin tribes/nations on the east coast. Some were this size and for nuclear families and others were larger to house extended families, like the long houses in upstate New York where many Iroquois live. People no longer live in wigwams or long houses but use them for ceremonies or for villages like this to show how life was during earlier time periods."  

Connecticut on Mohegan tribal land,  a reconstructed village circa colonial times  (2012), photograph

Wigwams are constructed from natural materials and over time are susceptible to structural deterioration. Wigwams on the Pamunkey reservation in Virginia were built for educational purposes but in the 1990s, they expired. The tribe has not yet begun constructing new ones.

Connecticut on Mohegan tribal land,  a reconstructed village circa colonial times – detail (2012), photograph

"My mother’s paternal family was originally from the Pamunkey reservation …. The Pamunkey are one of the tribes from the Powhatan Confederacy," Farris explains. The Powhatan Renape Nation in New Jersey had a reservation called Rankokus that also had a reconstructed village with wigwams. When Governor Christie got elected in 2010, he took back the land under eminent domain and the wigwams were destroyed."

"I like the abstract quality of the patterns created by bark and bent saplings used to create the wigwam. The interior darkness and "cozy" feeling that envelopes me is appealing. I am attracted to design patterns in indigenous architecture."

In addition to photographing structures of spiritual and cultural significance to Native Americans, Farris uses photography to document and share stories of cultural survival and contemporary cultural expression. When attending cultural events, she wears two hats, one as participant and the other as observer. For Farris, behaving in an ethical manner while capturing images that are “educational and pleasing to the eye” is of key importance.  

"At cultural events my main challenge is balancing having a good time by dancing in inter-tribals, eating, and buying jewellery and also getting good photos I can use for an article I am writing or for an exhibit. At more serious cultural events like ceremonies I always ask permission before taking photos," she explains.

"These events have similar challenges for being an observer and a participant. I choose imagery based on both aesthetic and cultural significance factors. People at powwows are considered in the public domain so technically permission is not needed to photograph them or publish their images. But usually I try to ask and get their name and tribe but it is not always possible."  

Fancy Dancer, Georgetown University Powwow  (2013), photograph

Farris also attends protests and occupation movements. A social activist, she is committed to “non-violent approaches to dealing with all creative, social and political issues”. At these gatherings, Farris photographs activists who are well-known and those who are not.  

Father Ken and Thundercloud (2012), photograph

Elijah Nature Boy (2012), photograph

The 28th of August 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington led by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Camera in hand, Farris was in attendance. "As an activist, I often go to protest marches as a participant and an observer. It was important for me to honor Dr. King's legacy of non-violent resistance by being at the march and by taking this protest shot concerning the unfair Florida “Stand-your- ground- law”, the murder of Trayvon (Martin) and the acquittal of his killer, (George ) Zimmerman."  

Protestor holding Support Trayvon's Law Poster (2013), photograph

Longest Walk II, Harry Belafonte on the Capitol Grounds (1998), photograph

As a scholar, Farris has lectured nationally and internationally and written extensively on themes of identity, gender, and social justice. Within the art world, however, explorations of such topics are not always welcomed. "I face many challenges as a curator and photographer working with themes dealing with identity, gender, and social justice, "Farris expounds. "The art market is driven by fads and money. In the 80's identity politics was a commodified fad so many exhibits focused on women artists and/or artists of color. After the 80's and early 90's these types of shows were less popular. But," she emphasizes, "... the issues remain."

"Capitalism and art venues solely concerned about money never really cared about gender or race issues. They exploited these themes for profit."

"It is 2013 and Native Americans are still dealing with unfair treaties, loss of land, and economic hardship on most reservations. Women around the world, especially in so called "developing countries" are coping with the realities of possible violence (sexual or domestic), balancing child care and work, and finding ways to maintain traditional customs that are beneficial for their societies while at the same time transforming or ending traditional customs that are harmful to their health and well-being. Pollution and climate change will affect everyone in the world but poorer people and countries will be more affected. So I do not think social justice themes for art are outdated. But convincing funding sources is not easy."

Dr Phoebe Farris’ documentary photography is visually and intellectually captivating. While the viewer is first attracted by the aesthetics of the image, a closer look reveals more. We are provided a social commentary that is both rooted in history and applicable now.

One aspect of this social commentary is identity politics and representation. When asked to speak about the U.S. media’s representation of Native Americans, Farris notes, "I see hardly any progress at all. There is almost no representation, good or bad. When the media focuses on so called minorities/people of color/disadvantaged/underrepresented etc. the focus is usually on African Americans, Latinos/Hispanics,

and sometimes Asians. Mainstream media basically ignores Native Americans. The only exception is PBS TV programming which often has excellent programs about Native history and culture."

* The Map Is Not The Territory, Parallel Paths: Palestinians, Native Americans, Irish will travel from 2013-2018.