“Camera-Shy: Photographs and an Installation at Thunder-Sky, Inc.”
By Larry Watson
In the multimedia installation at Thunder-Sky, Inc., Mary Pember has assembled a historical “snapshot” of her experience as a part of the Native American paradox for her and for her mother. This installation, “Digital Wigwam” stretches the medium of photography into a personal experience to include audio and environment, which is a reflection of the traditional Lodge that was used on multiple levels for visual, auditory, and physical demonstration of spiritual practices and self-exploration.
The exhibit included a scaled representation of a wigwam, using local willow trees and a cover of transparent linen, which housed an inviting, though somewhat cramped, environment of video screens and cushions. As one enters from the west and travels inside in a clockwise direction (taking instruction from a song that came to her in a dream, “To move in an easterly direction”), a sense of cozy comfort replaces the adjective “cramped,” and the wigwam seems to provide an atmosphere of protection and privacy that improves the ability to focus on and be drawn into the story unfolding on the screens and in spoken word.
Mary Pember has assembled a montage of photographs along with a montage of lyrical descriptions of her mother and the relationship between them. The complexity of emotions that I felt as I listened to the narrative could not compare to the complexity of those who have been through the experience of colonization and genocide. The artist fully recognizes that the history that any tribe and more specifically each Native American experiences is as diverse as the more than 500 indigenous tribes of this continent.
As Pember describes the challenges of her mother’s childhood in the sister schools that attempted to “Americanize” Native Americans, along with other events, compassion and vulnerability are highlighted in the narrative Pember uses to describe her own childhood and her relationship with her mother. The strength and gentleness of Pember’s voice is an important thread in the tapestry of this installation.
This thread extends to the Deus Ex Machina of the Singer sewing machine that became an obsession for Pember’s mother in her final years. She had kept this machine after her mother had moved into a nursing home, and, when she came to know that she no longer needed to understand her mother’s desire to have and see this relic, Pember brought her mother the sewing machine. This presence brought her mother great comfort in those final years, and is now a part of the installation. In her words, “A mute testament, a gift from God as an end of the story.”
Pember’s other work(s) in the exhibit is another screen that displays many of her photographs of Native Americans that are again accompanied by her lyrical descriptions of the individuals or situation that she captured. Though candid and visually satisfying, the context of each photograph draws one into the moment, the history, and the unknown future of each scenario and person.
Though no European (that includes all Caucasians like me) can really “get it,” this authentic exhibition has rich context; a refined, heart-felt presentation; and strong lyrical qualities that can enlighten one to some small degree as to the enormity and complexity of Native American history in the context of the unique individual. Perhaps most importantly, it is a powerful, personal narrative of the universal human journey we all experience in our own quest to get to “happy.”
The exhibit runs through December 14, 2012, and the gallery is open Fridays 6 to 8 PM, Saturdays and Sundays 1 to 4PM
Thunder-Sky, In. Gallery
4573 Hamilton Ave.
Cinc. OH. 45223