Treasures from the Vault: Matika Wilbur

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

Matika Wilbur was born in Washington State in 1984 as a member of the Tulalip and Swinomish tribes. She attended the Brooks Institute of Photography and then worked commercially in California for a couple of years. Wilbur soon came to realize, however, that she had a bigger dream: to change the way we see Native Americans. The first step in her journey was becoming a certified K-12 teacher to work directly with the Native American youth to inspire them in the visual arts. Many of the kids expressed how they felt misrepresented and abandoned by the contemporary American mindset; they felt a loss of identity and limited potential. It is here that she began Project 562.

Wilbur’s Project 562, the number of federally recognized Tribal Nations, began back in 2012. As of 2018, there are now 573 federally recognized tribes. The mission is to document and photograph at least one person from all original 562 tribes across the US because she felt the portrayal of Native Americans in textbooks is inaccurate and stereotypical. In doing this, Wilbur wanted to showcase the Native American culture in a positive light and introduce role models of this century who might otherwise be unknown. The journey has taken her through all 50 states in her RV, “Big Girl,” to gather stories of the various indigenous American tribe members. She received funding through Kickstarter and was backed by a large community of supporters, often sleeping on sofas and turning strangers into friends. It’s also a project best accomplished by a Native American herself; she understands firsthand the misrepresentation and treatment Native American tribes receive. In her words, Project 562 represents the “stories of those who trusted me with their truth. I felt the struggle and I’ve been lifted up by our human desire to endure.”

Wilbur prints her photographs as photogravures because the depth in tones of the ink gives the images a velvet-like texture. Photogravures are made by etching a photograph onto a copper plate, and then using the plate to make a print. Printing the photographs using this transfer process, as opposed to developing negatives in a darkroom, captures the different tonal qualities that Wilbur is seeking to express. Take a look at the photo below, what do you notice about the colors, textures, and details?

Matika Wilbur, Native American, b. 1984. Dr. Mary from Project 562. Photogravure, 2015. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment.

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art has collected two photographs from Project 562, the first back in 2015. Dr. Mary from Project 562 depicts Dr. Mary Evelyn Belgarde from the Pueblo of Isleta and Ohkay Owingeh, a retired professor of Native American education from the University of New Mexico. She is depicted in a traditional Native American garment, full with belt and jewelry, standing tall in her tribal land. The image is mostly black and white, with limited color to emphasize the power of the figure. Can you see the various tones in the image? Dr. Belgarde’s primary focus was to train teachers to understand the culture within the indigenous communities and has worked to establish charter schools and funds supporting Native American youth. She once asked, “When are we going to stop asking our children to choose between cultural education and Western education? I think we are ready to stop the assimilation project. The time to change is now.”

Matika Wilbur, Native American, b. 1984. White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers. Photogravure, 2017. Museum Purchase.

The second photograph we collected from Matika Wilbur’s Project 562 is entitled White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers. It was collected just last year and is now on view in A Year of Making Meaning: 2018. This portrait fully shows the traditional headdress, body paint, and attire of the ceremonial dancers who are part of a tribe that have resided in eastern Arizona for thousands of years. Decorated in body paint, with skin exposed, their faces are completely covered with the exception of small holes for the eyes. This presents a ghostly, almost demonic stare down with the viewer. It is visually chilling but also draws curiosity.

Group leader Joe Tohonnie, Jr. describes the dance as sacred and used often at tribal ceremonies. There are a total of five dancers, though only two are depicted in the print. During the dance, there are four dancers who wear black masks to represent those that make poor decisions and one who wears a white mask to represent the one sent down from heaven for guidance. He guides the other four on how to live in the forest, which herbs to collect and use, how to pray, etc. The crowns symbolize deer, which are considered a medicine, helping to feed and cure the tribe. The traditional garment worn was only buckskin but, over the years, has evolved with the addition of bells. Certain tribes use all white body paint while others mix white with black patterns, but Tohonnie says his tribe uses all black with white details to honor the gods. None of the dancing is choreographed; the song moves them as the story is told.

Because she is the first artist to document the tribes in a contemporary setting, her stories are the only research completed on this topic. The importance of Project 562 is in the recording of a diminishing and lost people. As more and more assimilation occurs, slowly pieces of the rituals and history about the Tribal Nations is being forgotten.

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art, whose primary focus is collecting American art, constantly works to invest in diverse and impactful artwork for our permanent collection. Adding works by Matika Wilbur reflects our mission and strengthens the collection as a whole. When purchasing contemporary artwork, we sometimes look to galleries and studios who have a good reputation because we acknowledge them as trusted sources. In this case, the two photogravures were purchased from Segura Arts Studio, out of South Bend, IN and associated with Notre Dame University. Segura works with marginalized artists: women, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Other contemporary Native American artists we have collected from Segura include Emmi Whitehorse, Jacob Meders, and Juane Quick-to-See Smith. Come see Wilbur’s and other recent acquisitions to our collection, including those from Segura Arts Studio, in A Year of Making Meaning: 2018, up through June 9th!

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