True to the exhibition title "I saw more than I can tell" we feel after visiting the deeply moving exhibition at the Vienna Weltmuseum earlier this year.
We saw more than we can tell - we saw much more in Christine Turnauer's photographs than we are trying to share here in this article. The portraits of the indigenous North Americans, their statements and thoughts touched and fascinated us. We try to share our impressions and fascination with you here.
Austrian photographer Christine Turnauer's portrait photographs provide an insight into the participants of powwows. Powwows are social gatherings or events of indigenous men, women and children from all over North America. They proudly celebrate their identity as members or descendants of different peoples and original inhabitants.
Traditional dress is an essential part of their culture, especially in terms of cultural transmission and strengthening of identities. Jewellery has also been a highly valued form of artistic expression in North American indigenous communities since before first contact with Europe. These garments combine the aesthetic aspect with a variety of symbols that belong to the spiritual order. The outer form contains the inner life. A statement of a portrayed person goes deep:
While I stand here, I see more than I can tell, and understood more than I saw, For I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit. And the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred loop of my people was one of many loops that made one circle.
~ Chief Black Elk Ogiala Sioux
In her ethnographic but also photographic work during the powwows, the photographer observes that wearing the traditional clothing seems like a spontaneous expression of themselves and that the clothing is inseparable from an attitude of pride and inner freedom.
The indigenous people seem to have a direct connection to their ancestors. It is a direct expression of themselves and their origins. Their being in costume also shows an inherent tension between reduction and richness of detail and between individual and collective identity.
This colourfulness, expressiveness of the costumes and personalities call for at least similar-looking colour in the photographs. But the photographer deliberately opts for an absence of colour.
She invites the indigenous people of the powwow into her mobile photography studio in a tent. Together with the neutrally chosen backgrounds and "powwow" northern and daylight, those portrayed are completely in their focus and natural expression as people, representatives of cultural traditions and distinctive personalities. Thus the poses are also actively chosen by them, they were who they were and proud to be who they are.
I am all the forces and objects with which I come into contact, I am the wind - the trees - and the birds and the darkness. Who am I...
~ Patty Harjo
Their images were therefore taken with them and not of them. What could be misunderstood as a pose is in fact "bearing" on the surface, that of the body, but equally the relationship of the soul to the world. Thus the photographs are not only truthful documents with culture-specific expression, but also expressions of an encounter between the person photographed and the person taking the picture.
The visual recording of stories, traditions, values, customs of the indigenous culture already played an important role in the distant past. Tribal artisans recorded the beliefs and cultural history of their people in signs and motifs: they etched, painted, wove and frilled works. Central to this visual language is the belief that the whole universe is imbued with spiritual energy and harmony, as one of the portrayers opined:
Our teachers tell us that all things within this universe wheel know their harmony with every other thing, and know to give away one to the other - except man.
~ Hyemeyohsts Storm Cheyenne
It is the belief in the multi-layered universe, interconnected beings, circularity and balance:
Everything the power of the world does is done in circles, the wind in its greatest powers whirls, birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours, even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were.
~ Chief Black Elk Oglala Sioux
Their own land and the nature in which they live have the greatest influence on their culture and their existence:
We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and the winding streams with tangled growth, as wild. Only for the white man was nature wildness, to us it was tame. The earth was beautiful, and we were surrounded by blessings of the great mystery.
~ Chief Luther Standing Bear Sioux
Just let the quotes and the pictures work their magic on you. Maybe you feel like us and see, feel and sense much more than you can express and share.
Weltmuseum Wien: I saw more than I can tell: https://www.weltmuseumwien.at/ausstellungen/i-saw-more-than-i-can-tell/
Christine Turnauer, 2018: https://christine-turnauer-photography.com/christine-turnauer-portraits-of-indians/