The white beadwork trailing across Tom Jones’ photographs traces the spirits of his Ho-Chunk ancestors.
The University of Wisconsin professor creates portraits of his people from the inside out, rooted in cultural identity, sans the feathers and fringe of outsider depictions.
Santa Fe’s IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art is presenting “Tom Jones: Unrelenting Spirits” through March 28, 2021.
The exhibition includes recent works from his “Studies in Cultural Appropriation” series, an exploration of how popular culture, fashion and design lifts from American Indian culture. Using a found black and white image of a 1920s couple, he beaded the suit of the male figure in Native American designs in “Cultural Appropriation Study 23.”
“I’m intrigued by things I find in antique stores,” he said. “That figure is a cut-out.”
Although the work raises questions about cultural “borrowing” in the fashion industry, Jones declines to take a stand. He referenced a (nameless) fashion designer who lifted a jacket pattern from a Northwest Coast cape.
“I mean, as artists we’re just putting things out
there,” he said. “There are native people who do the same thing. It’s when is it taken too far; when they take images and they don’t know what they are. It’s a fine line. There are so many different levels of taking and stealing.”
The artist collects antique glass beads everywhere he travels, most recently from Paris. Some are more than 100 years old. His portrait of “Elizah Leonard” (2019) features the sitter in fancy dress haloed in a vine of white flowers.
“I look at old beadwork designs from my own tribe,” he said. “They say you should never copy it; you should just be informed by it.”
Jones found the rhinestone beads in New York; he created the flowers from mother-of-pearl. He sketches out the designs on paper first before tracing them using Photoshop to use as templates.
“When you walk past it, they all glimmer,” he said.
Jones began learning how to bead when he was in second grade. By the time he advanced to high school, he was selling pendants, hat bands and earrings to his classmates.
“I try to stick to white,” he said. “It represents the spirits.
“When I was in third grade, my mother saw a Sioux medicine man for healing,” he continued. “They turned all the lights off and then the women started singing to bring the spirits. These white orbs started floating around the room. That kind of stuck with me.”
Jones grew up in Florida and North Carolina before his mother returned to Wisconsin to eventually earn a law degree. She served as tribal president in the 1980s. He’s been photographing the tribe since he earned master’s degrees in photography and museum studies at Chicago’s Columbia College in 1998.
Beaded stars entwine the figure in his 2015 portrait of the veteran “Colin Carrimon,” who cradles the folded American flag of a deceased ancestor.
“We’ve fought in every war for the U.S. except for the War of 1812,” he said. “And we also had code talkers.”
Much of Jones’ inspiration came from the Kiowa photographer Horace Poolaw, who lived from 1906 to 1984.
“He’s the first (native) person I saw who was photographing their own community,” he said.
When Jones was working at Columbia College, a colleague mentioned she was related to the late photographer by marriage. She said his glass plate negatives were tucked under a bed in a plastic bin in Anadarko, Oklahoma.
“We took a group of students down there and we digitized all the negatives,” he said.
The collection resulted in a book published by Yale University, as well as an exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York.
“He informed my work and I was able to do something and give back,” Jones said.
Today he’s drawing portraits, an idea that germinated during a 2019 Institute of American Indian Art residency.
“Somebody asked me to be in a missing indigenous women show,” he said.
He met a woman who had been abducted in Albuquerque.
“They’re people in profile,” he said. “I’m having them face the sun with their eyes closed.”