Hoogstraten captures the Potawatomi finery
Photography is a vehicle of cultural preservation for Sharon Hoogstraten, giving dignity and visibility to an Indigenous community that has often been unable to control its own image, she said.
Hoogstraten, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and resident of Chicago, embarked on a photographic project more than 10 years ago, documenting modern Potawatomi dressed in formal pageantry.
High-resolution images of Hoogstraten, the product of a Hasselblad camera, are enlarged to life size for display in galleries. “Dancing for our Tribe: Potawatomi Tradition in the New Millenium,” his most recent exhibition, curated by Evanston artist Fran Joy. The exhibit has been on view since July 30, featured an artist talk on Friday, and runs until August 28.
Around 30 people attended the vernissage, where Hoogstraten described her photographic process and the journey that led her to document her people.
“I want to preserve a culture, send it to our descendants, (and I want) to let everyone know we’re here,” Hoogstraten said. “Everyone thinks it’s a dying culture. We worked very hard to acquire the old artistic skills in order to work on the preservation of the language before losing the old ones.
Wilmette resident Audrey Moy said she was already aware of Hoogstraten’s work, but was particularly impressed with the collection on display at the opening. She said she loves the cultural stories that Hoogstraten’s photographs tell.
Moy said photographing modern Indigenous life is a way to acknowledge a culture that has been marginalized.
“She can capture images that will last in our minds over time,” Moy said. “Again, it tells a story and speaks to where they are going. So we are able to create that in our hearts and minds.
Joy first discovered Hoogstraten’s work at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston. She said she wanted people to feel the native culture through the exhibit. Moy and Joy said they believe it is important to recognize Indigenous lands.
The large size of the photographs was unusual, allowing for high resolution, which is especially useful with ornate and elaborate native insignia, according to Joy. Additionally, cedar, an important Potawatomi medicinal herb, is used to hang the pictures.
“They’re quite large, almost life-size, and have a black background to show movement, like they’re dancing,” Joy said. “And they’re very detailed and very colorful, quite striking.”
The title of the show and Hoogstraten’s book of photographs, “Dancing for Our Tribe: The Potawatomi Tradition in the New Millennium,” reflect the importance of dance in the Potawatomi ceremony.
Dance is an essential form of cultural preservation for many Indigenous groups, but Hoogstraten said it’s vital to the Potawotami for historical reasons. The Potawatomi signed the most treaties with the US government of any tribe, meaning they were highly mobile and unable to use physical space to maintain their traditions.
“It was really difficult for us to maintain our culture,” Hoogstraten said. “(Many of us were) shipped west of the Mississippi…basically deported. So clinging to a lot of traditions is not something they take for granted.
Hoogstraten’s photographs, which are preserved in a book to be released in late August, are a way of grounding her children and family seven generations later, she said.
Hoogstraten asks all of his subjects to write a handwritten description of their outfits in terms of symbolism and what it means to them. Many of these explanations were on display in Evanston’s gallery.
The exhibition, presented in a small space at the front of the art centre, is part of a larger long-term commitment to various artists, and the third of four shows organized by Joy for this year.
At its heart, the exhibition revolves around dignity, pride and preservation.
“I’m trying to fix our place on the timeline,” Hoogstraten said. “I try to find the roots with my children.”
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