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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review A Kind of Prayer Photographs by Kimowan Metchewais Reviewed by Brian Arnold "This richly illustrated book presents a series of Polaroids, collages and paintings made by Metchewais roughly between 1997-2004. Matchewais did a BFA in Alberta before getting an MFA at the University of New Mexico, he then went on to a teaching career at the University of North Carolina Chapel..."

A Kind of Prayer By Kimowan Metchewais.
A Kind of Prayer
Photographs by Kimowan Metchewais

Aperture, New York, 2023. 268 pp., 150 illustrations, 7¾x10½".

“Refusing to see one’s self as others do means that one’s inner sense of who one is, one’s assurance of personal identity, is severely shaken… A new conception of personal purpose and a novel style of life may result, but they can be based only on the cultural traditions one knows.” 
— Hildred Geertz

I graduated from college in 1993. I don’t remember too much about my graduation ceremony, honestly, I can’t even tell you who gave the commencement speech. I do remember one thing vividly, a kid sitting just a few seats away from me. I don’t think I ever knew his name, but I do remember that his graduate gown looked more like a costume than a ceremonial robe. He’d painted colors and patterns on the hat and stenciled some characters on the back of his gown. Our paths had never crossed before, but through the course of the ceremony I did learn a few things about him: he was from a Southern Ute reservation nearby and the first of his family to graduate from college. When he walked on stage to receive his degree, his family went nuts, and between his costume and his body language, his graduation appeared as both a victory and an act of defiance. In Southern Colorado, the campus was close to reservations, but I’d venture a bet that he was the only Indigenous person in my graduating class.

There is more I can say about this, but this memory did surface again while reading the new Aperture monograph A Kind of Prayer about Kimowan Metchewais, a Cree artist from Alberta, Canada. This richly illustrated book presents a series of Polaroids, collages and paintings made by Metchewais roughly between 1997-2004. Matchewais did a BFA in Alberta before getting an MFA at the University of New Mexico, he then went on to a teaching career at the University of North Carolina Chapel. A Kind of Prayer also includes text contributions from photographer Jeff Whetstone (who writes an amazing eulogy to Metchewais’s career at UNC), archivist Emily Moazami, art historian Christopher T. Green and some very poignant pieces by Metchewais himself.

A Kind of Prayer
is a remarkable book, portraying Metchewais as an artist of incredible intellect, sensitivity and creativity, but also shows him in perpetual conflict, caught between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures. He thought of his work as fully contemporary and reflective of his time, developed within the Eurocentric canon of fine arts discourse but also rooted in Indigenous creative traditions. Kimowan was referencing Matisse while simultaneously reflecting on his early life on a reservation in Canada. This conflict of identity was richly rendered in his multidisciplinary practice.

Most of the book is Polaroids, a photographic medium that I find deceptively tricky. The ease and simplicity of the process allows for very casual and undisciplined seeing, and, with little control over exposure, it can also be a bit clumsy. In the right hands, however, Polaroids can still be surprising and refreshing, providing incredible opportunities for spontaneous realizations and a raw, unfiltered vision. Metchewais employs these attributes beautifully, using the informal nature of the medium as a sketching tool to make pictures that feel both urgent and deeply personal. Some of these pictures function like diary entries — documenting trips back to his home in Alberta, to the Washington Monument (an interesting juxtaposition) and portraits of his family and friends — while others capture performances in which Metchewais acts out identity issues for the camera. There are also Polaroids documenting small sculptural pieces and studio projects, others are cut apart and taped back together or have quick thoughts scribbled on the white frame. Collectively, these lend A Kind of Prayer the feeling of a sketchbook, an intimate look into how an artist generates ideas.

The collages and paintings reproduced retain a sense of informality — you can often see the pieces of tape used in assembling them, and ledger paper was one of his favorite supports — but nevertheless feel more ambitious, and thus more like fully realized ideas. All the works presented in A Kind of Prayer — the paintings and Polaroids alike — are rich with symbolic meaning. By photographing bingo signs, antlers, pottery, tobacco and even ledger paper, Metchewais continually brings us back to his origins. In an essay called “In Search of Live Relics in Cold Lake,” he tells us: “My studio has been a laboratory where I have conducted an archaeology of the self.” This essay provides a great deal in helping us understand his work, specifically the personal and cultural languages he utilized. In explaining his archaeology of self, Metchwais also talks about “live relics,” a way of understanding art that is both historical (relics) and part of our current state of being (live). He tells us live relics are the cultural and personal layers at the core of art, not always seen and recognized, but nevertheless they are what give pictures their meaning.

I want to circle back and say a bit more about my experience in school. While I never met the classmate I mentioned earlier, in college I did visit a reservation in Northern New Mexico. I was in a 3-week intensive photo class on the American West, and the bus driving all us students around took us to a pueblo village in northern New Mexico to make pictures. It was an adobe village with minimal plumbing and only wood for heating and cooking. A bus load of white kids showing up to photograph didn’t feel right to me, so I ditched the class to photograph a cottonwood grove and some mudflats outside the village. We then left for Taos where we met the great social geographer Cotton Mather, who gave us a lecture in a parking lot outside our motel. He talked about the importance of recognizing the native presence as an essential part of this landscape’s history, but he didn’t quite tell us how.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books, including A History of Photography in Indonesia, with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, Amsterdam University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.