The MacArthur Foundation dubbed Natalie Diaz a "genius" just two days before she presented her photo and text series, NTV AMRKN KRWN: Self Portraits in Sonnet Form, at the Hugo House on Saturday evening. The Mojave American poet, who's an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, held complete command of the room. Even her silences were weighty, the air filled with the static sound of microphone feedback.
During her presentation, Diaz said something about empathy that I can't get out of my head. Dryly, she told us that she thought empathy was “one of the most useless things possible—there’s no action that accompanies it.” It’s an emotion that focuses on a centering of self. I felt immediate resistance to that idea, but the more that I’ve let myself sit on it, the harder I find it to refute, especially after viewing Diaz's show.
In some ways, Diaz's series emerges from the 150th anniversary of Edward S. Curtis’s birth. Curtis was a white American photographer best known for his nearly 30-year project that documented more than 82 indigenous tribes at the turn of the 20th century. Though Curtis died poor and in obscurity, his photos eventually enjoyed great success. Some celebrated him for documenting and recording indigenous cultures before they were “lost.” But they weren't "lost." White settlers violently and aggressively expanded the American empire by systematically killing millions of indigenous peoples. Curtis's photos served the empire by framing the indigenous body and way of life as one of the past. In addition to de-centering Curtis’s work, Diaz’s self-portraits attempt to undermine the expectations audiences have for indigenous woman.
Diaz’s self-portraits are blurry and blown out. She refuses legibility and wants the viewers' eye to not remain fixed upon her, categorizing her. “I wanted to toy with the idea of allowing myself to be seen rather than seen through another's projection of me," she said in an e-mail. "They are out of focus intentionally, so the indigenous body could not be pinned down or held down, stilled. The movement, in my mind, is noise, so they are not silent photos.” The amount light in Diaz’s photo refutes the darkness of Curtis’s documentation of indigenous peoples, casting them in the shadow of the past.
Each of her photos were taken from the waist up, the naked upper half of her body and the black wall of her hair contrasted against a white background. In some photos, she wears a beaded necklace or bracelet—an “artifact” of indigenous bodies. In others, Diaz wears black and white body paint, a practice normally reserved for male Mojave warriors, troubling the idea of gender norms. Diaz pushes the audience to confront our own bias when it comes to our views of indigenous people, wanting us to consider why we thought the people in Curtis’s photos were beautiful, why we continue to think that. “What needs to be absent in order to be beautiful?" Diaz wonders. I do, too.
While the images were pointed and structured in form, the talk itself took more of a meandering tone. She read new poems about her sister’s incarceration and the forced separation of Mojave children from their families to attend English language boarding school in the late 20th century. She also took time to explain the sentence diagrams that accompany almost every photo, which derive from statements or song lyrics relating to indigenous Americans. From Captain Ratcliff's song in Pocahontas—“They’re savages, savages, barely even human”—to Colonel Dodge’s “Every buffalo is a dead Indian gone,” Diaz deconstructed the language Americans use to talk about indigeneity.
There's a temptation to call Diaz’s work “timely,” especially on a day like Indigenous Peoples' Day, but the truth is that it’s been timely for the past 500 years—ever since Columbus sailed the ocean blue. All of us who aren’t enrolled in Coast Salish tribes are living on unceded territories and are, to some extent, equally responsible for bearing witness to the continual oppression of indigenous people and history under the onus of American empire.
Diaz’s presentation served as an important reminder that the American system of government isn’t failing us. It’s working exactly as it’s been designed—to protect the interests of those in power, namely wealthy straight white men. This point held special fire at the Hugo House on Saturday, as the Senate had confirmed a blubbering white man accused of sexual assault to the Supreme Court earlier in the day.
Diaz doesn't pretend to have answers, nor is she particularly interested in them—"There's no way to make reparations for the past 500 years,” she said. And I'm inclined to agree. A house built on rotting wood does not stand for long. Fingers crossed.