To Represent Ourselves: Indigenous Short Films at the BMA

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P reoccupied: Indigenizing the Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s recently unveiled effort to center Native voices, is an ambitious and impressive initiative. Underwritten by ten organizations, developed through conversations with a community advisory panel and local cultural experts, and featuring nine exhibitions, public programming, and a Native-designed publication, it’s a complex undertaking. Happily, though, it’s studded with remarkable works and rewarding moments.

A room-sized installation by Caroline Monnet, an Anishinaabe/French artist, blurs the lines between craft and architecture and past and present, yielding a capacious sense of possibility. And while a 2023 construction by the Passamaquoddy basket maker Jeremy Frey only entered the BMA’s collection about five months ago, its spiky elegance and elegant craftsmanship have already established it as one of the most riveting visual objects in Baltimore.


Installation view of Preoccupied: Indigenizing the Museum at the BMA, with work by Caroline Monnet visible, Photo Kerr Houston
Sky Hopinka, in 2018, Image: The Film Study Center at Harvard University

By contrast, the five short films showing in a black box in the museum’s contemporary wing are less immediately appealing. Curated by the Native filmmaker Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation and descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians) and entitled Don’t wait for me, just tell me where you’re going, the looping collection is frankly challenging. While visually diverse, the films share a disinterest in conventional narrative and resolution, instead embracing sudden cuts, oblique implication, and an active interrogation of the very medium of film. 

But don’t turn away too quickly—for in fact a willful resistance to film’s potentially seductive qualities is the very point. Given the industry’s lengthy history of misrepresenting and exploiting Indigenous subjects and histories, these experimental filmmakers are dedicated to what Diana Flores Ruíz has termed the anticolonial covenant of shooting back. In other words, these films comprise conscious attempts to reverse the colonial gaze of settlers, anthropologists and documentarians, and to speak meaningfully of and to Indigenous subjects. Conventional accessibility is not the goal here. If anything, it has long been the problem.

That’s not to say that this small sampling (in total, the five films run for about 48 minutes) should be taken as representative of Indigenous filmmaking in general. Rather, as the sixty diverse projects featured in the Indigenous Edition of the 2023 Media City Film Festival demonstrated, this is currently a dynamic, multilingual, and multinational field. 

Still from Fox Maxy, "Blood Materials," Image: Media City Film Festival
Uninterested in broad appeal or a mass audience, they seek instead to speak to those who know, and they work to overturn a history of filmic exploitation that is closely associated with a broader colonial project.
Kerr Houston

And while Hopinka leans upon that festival by showing several works that were also included there, it’s critical to remember that other talented Indigenous filmmakers (Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, Rhayne Vermette, and New Red Order all come to mind) are working in meaningful directions of their own. Nevertheless, Hopinka’s slate works reasonably well as a demonstration of certain decolonial strategies and of the varied styles of several active Native creators.

At 18 minutes in length, Fox Maxy’s 2021 ✧ⒷⓁ♡Ⓞ✇☟Ⓞ☽Ⓓ✰ ⓜⓐⓣⓔⓡⓘⓐⓛⓢ✦ (Blood Materials) is the longest of the films—and, as you might guess from its emoji-laden alternate title, the one most deeply shaped by contemporary digital cultures. Maxy (Mesa Grande Band of Mission Indians and Payómkawichum) is well known for using footage taken with her iPhone and cheap camcorders, in an implicit defense of the value of making film with affordable, at-hand equipment. (Relatedly, as Wendy Gay Pearson and Susan Knabe once noted, Indigenous filmmakers have long prioritized documentaries and experimental short films, precisely because they require less material support than feature films).

The result is lively and evocative. In stitching together a jumble of provocative but only loosely related clips (a tiny lizard in a cupped hand; glowing screens at a casino; a segment of barbed wire fence; a parking lot mural offering a nostalgic vision of Native life), Maxy constructs a non-linear account of the friction between her own probing curiosity and the flattening, restrictive aspect of stereotypical imageries. 

Importantly, many of the images are edited so that they swirl and warp, and an accompanying soundtrack is subjected to pitch shifts. As the critic Joshua Minsoo Kim has observed, the resulting tone is one of instability and displacement. But certain recurring motifs—Maxy focuses repeatedly on shoes and edges of surfaces—intensify and enrich this effect, yielding an existential question: how to find footing in a world segmented and deformed by settler colonialism?

Still from Lindsay McIntyre, "seeing her," Image: Media City Film Festival
Still from Olivia Camfield and Woodrow Hunt, "We Only Answer Our Landline," Image: Ann Arbor Film Festival
How to find footing in a world segmented and deformed by settler colonialism?
Kerr Houston

Lindsay McIntyre’s 2020 “seeing her,” by contrast, focuses on a single object: the beaded front panel of an amauti, or parka, that once belonged to the filmmaker’s great-grandmother. An heirloom, it’s a concrete embodiment of trans-generational continuity. But McIntyre’s jittery, handheld camera, rapid cuts and strobe lighting combine to create a frenzied, nervous tone that is not simply reverent; if anything, it calls attention to the active labor of the filmmaker. McIntyre (Inuk) has long valued a hands-on approach to filmmaking, and the work involved in creating emulsions and hand-processing her 16mm film offers an echo of the handiwork once involved in beading. (Moreover, as Kristen Dowell has pointed out, making her own film stock also allows McIntyre to reclaim her medium from the apparatus of the film industry.)

At the same time, though, the film also evokes thoughts of the past, and of who controls its telling. McIntyre’s use of merely partial pans and blurred focus render the red, white, and blue beads strikingly elusive: the subject is not fixed or clear. McIntyre thus practices a politics of refusal, as she avoids the steady, clinical, and nominally objective visual style long embraced by European science. The past, here, remains fugitive, silent, and only partially visible. And so while the title of the film is a partial ode to a relative, it’s clear that seeing her is not so simple after all. Indeed, McIntyre implies that relating to her great-grandmother may only really be possible through loving, hands-on creative work.

We Only Answer Our Landline,” a 2019 film by Olivia Camfield (Muscogee Creek Nation) and Woodrow Hunt (Cherokee, Klamath, and Modoc Tribes descendent), echoes and extends themes apparent in the work of both Maxy and McIntyre. Desktop windows and selfies multiply quickly and digital emblems appear suddenly, with all of the energy and random logic of pop-up ads. But we also see figures in domestic interiors and a range of natural settings: hints, that is, of individual identities and families taking shape in a disorienting digital world. Importantly, too, an archival photograph of a woman hovers, superimposed against the rest of the imagery, for most of the film: a constant spectral presence in a shifting world.

What to make of this? A pronounced emphasis on screens and reflections—near the outset, we see a reflection in a car’s rear view mirror—suggests a concern with the fragmentation associated with lives lived online. But Camfield and Hunt are clearly also interested in the theme of alienation: at one point, two cartoonish aliens abruptly appear, and wobble for several seconds. Critically, too, the film’s abiding emphasis on landscapes suggests that any discussion of aliens needs to be rooted in a consideration of this continent’s thorny history of dispossession and othering. If anything, the implication is that those of European descent are the true aliens and that as long as the land exists, Indians, as a song featured in the film puts it, will never die.

By contrast, Aymara/German artist Miguel Hilari’s 2022 “Cerro Saturno” moves more slowly; it has the formal logic and deliberate pace of a procession. Just over 13 minutes long, it consists of sustained shots, all in black and white, of the formidable Bolivian landscape outside La Paz—and then, towards its end, of the capital city itself. The first few shots are interestingly ambiguous: the weird landscapes that they depict look almost lunar, and the absence of any figures or manmade structures means that the scale is far from clear. Even when signs of life (electricity pylons; a road; buzzing wires) begin to appear, they feel almost otherworldly, evoking the pure geometry of an Aztec pyramid or the vast geometry of Land Art.

Human presence feels, here, fragile, arbitrary and provisional. Five tiny figures manipulate wheelbarrows among unexplained heaps of stone. A hatted figure sits in a car, as raindrops snake down the windows. Gradually, though, we approach the city. Honks and beeps imply traffic—but any larger context, and any clear sense of destination, is withheld. Instead, in an increasingly rapid series of shots, we see other figures inside vehicles. Some wear face masks which bow and crinkle with their breaths; another wears a top that’s decorated with images of llamas. The natural world, again, is othered. And the metropolis, in a closing shot, is nothing but a twinkling series of lights: an ethereal spectacle that seems somehow less than real.

Still from Miguel Hilari, Cerro Saturno, Image: Media City Film Festival
Still from Lindsay McIntyre, all-around junior male, Image: BAMPFA

The final piece is also by McIntyre: a curious decision, given the number of other talented Indigenous filmmakers. In any event, all-around junior male (2012) uses hand-processed Super 16 film in offering a grainy, clouded portrait of a young Nunamiut man training for the one-foot high kick. 

Once used as a means of communicating a successful hunt, the kick is now a standardized move in organized competitions. Here, though, the subject trains alone, in a vague subarctic setting: a rawer and more ascetic cousin of J.J. Watt’s concurrent gym box jumps. In a sense, McIntyre’s video offers an example of Gerald Vizenor’s influential concept of survivance: instead of celebrating the mere endurance of a tradition, it suggests, through its focus on the leaper’s intent expression and dancelike motions, an active presence. But, as in her other work, McIntyre is also clearly fascinated by the thick materiality of her medium. Scratched, marked, and murky, this portrait is as much about film as it is about its nominal subject.

Put in that way, McIntyre’s film offers an apt conclusion to this brief collection. Repeatedly, these films withhold as much as they share. Uninterested in broad appeal or a mass audience, they seek instead to speak to those who know, and they work to overturn a history of filmic exploitation that is closely associated with a broader colonial project. For that reason, too, these filmmakers often inhibit our vision, rely on implication rather than explication, and treat film as an opaque medium.

And, in so doing, they arguably construct a meaningful alternative to a traumatic past. To be sure, they are not the only ones attempting such a task; in watching these films, I was reminded of the work of Jennifer Packer, whose sensitive paintings depict Black subjects with an indirectness that is both wary and protective.

Regardless, though, this is work that is both revealing and important, in its own ways. Long ago, Robert Flaherty (who lived alongside the Inuit and eventually directed the controversial 1922 film Nanook of the North) claimed that “one often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit.” One senses that these Native filmmakers would agree with that. But they would surely agree, too, with Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s observation that Indigenous people have “struggled since colonization to be able to exercise what is viewed as a fundamental right, that is to represent ourselves.” These films represent an engaging part of that ongoing struggle.

Related: this July, the BMA is also opening two solo exhibitions from Native American artists Nicholas Galanin and Laura Ortman as part of Preoccupied: Indigenizing the Museum.

Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit and Unangax̂). “Unconverted/Converted,” 2022. Courtesy the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York

On July 14, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) will open Nicholas Galanin: Exist in the Width of a Knife’s Edge, a solo exhibition of new and recent works by the artist that addresses the consequences of European colonization and occupation of Indigenous homelands—specifically theft and erasure of belongings, Land, resources, and cultural knowledge from Indigenous communities.

Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache). “My Soul Remainer,” 2017. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from the Pearlstone Family Fund and partial gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

On July 17, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) will present Laura Ortman: Wood that Sings, a focus exhibition that explores Apache musicality by displaying the film “My Soul Remainer” (2019) by Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) alongside an early 20th-century Apache tsíí edo’a’tl (fiddle) from the BMA’s collection made by Amos Gustina (Western Apache). Crafted from the hollow stalk of an agave plant and played with the wide end against the musician’s chest, its Apache name translates to “the wood that sings.”

Header Image: Still from Lindsay McIntyre, "seeing her," Image: Media City Film Festival

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