WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) —About 400 years ago, the first Europeans began exploring land now known as Delaware.
As they journeyed through the region, their travels brought them face to face with the people who had lived there for millennia – the Lenni Lenape, the father tribe of the Lenape and Nanticoke Indians.
The Delaware Art Museum’s recently debuted exhibit, “In Conversation: Will Wilson,” works to forge a new relationship with Indigenous people by bringing visitors face to face with them through stories of Native people, 19th-century photography and augmented reality technology for an immersive experience that connects the past with the present.
In about a year and a half from idea to execution, the exhibition came together in whirlwind timing for show planning. Not only did the museum need to secure the artist’s availability, but they also needed to develop a relationship with Delaware’s Native population − some of the very people the artist would feature in his photos.
Building trust with sincere intention
The Delaware Art Museum exhibit showcases the photography of Will Wilson, a New Mexico-based Diné (Navajo) photographer whose work centers on Native American identity and culture.
Commissioning Will Wilson’s participation and arranging the logistics took effort, but the bulk of the endeavor came with establishing trust and relationships with Delaware’s Native American community.
Called Lenapehoking, the original homeland of the Lenape and Nanticoke encompassed present-day New Jersey, most of Delaware and eastern New York and Pennsylvania.
Iz Balleto, a community engagement specialist at the Delaware Art Museum, said due to past misrepresentation and exploitation, the Native community was not particularly interested in being involved in this project – earning their trust would be a process.
That process started with the tribal chiefs of the Delaware Lenape and Nanticoke first.
He said that after he and the museum committee were able to establish a connection with Chief Dennis Coker of the Lenape Indian Tribe and Chief Natosha Norwood Carmine of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe, they were able to have a conversation about what kind of relationship they were seeking and why they wanted the tribes’ involvement.
Even with the chiefs on board, they still needed to convince individual members who would then vote on the matter. Balleto said that the chief revealed that many tribal members “were not comfortable with their images being taken … and that’s where the dialog and the conversations took months. We had to build that trust.”
Balleto, a Peruvian-born Quechua Indian, grew up in New York City and has lived in Delaware for several years. To help build trust with Indigenous people, he said it is important that Native people be recognized from their own viewpoint.
For the Delaware Art Museum’s project, the exhibition text is translated into Spanish, a common language for many Native people of the Americas, and the inclusion of Will Wilson was intentional. The artist’s approach with portrait subjects or “sitters” embodies the type of relationship the institution intends to have with Delaware’s Native people.
These steps, Balleto said, were meant to reassure tribe members that the exhibit would be a chance for them “to be presented correctly.”
Contrasting today and the past with photography
At the exhibit, some photos are accompanied by an augmented reality feature that allows the user to see a subject perform a traditional ethnic dance; listen to a reconstituted version of Three Little Indians; or hear a recitation of Princess Leia’s secret message to Obi-Wan Kenobi instead reworded to inform Po‘Pay, a Tewa leader in the Pueblo’s fight against Spanish colonizers.
To see the performances, visitors must use a smartphone. The museum’s Wi-Fi is free, so the Talking Tintypes app can be downloaded while in the gallery. Once open, the app will access the smartphone’s camera, and the portraits will come to life.
Wilson also makes use of 19th-century technology to showcase his subject. The process is complex, but produces bold, contrasting renderings in darkness and light.
Popular during the Civil War, tintype wet-plate photography involves using a dark metal plate that gets coated in chemical solutions to produce the image. Exposure to light affects the level of contrast in the image. Therefore, the photo must be processed immediately and done in a darkroom.
The team from the Delaware Art Museum set up a portable darkroom and prepared the workspace at the Nanticoke Indian Tribal Center in Millsboro for the 14-hour shoot with Wilson and members of the Delaware Lenape and Nanticoke tribes.
After Wilson developed the plates, he scanned them to make digital prints for the exhibit – the original plates go to the sitters as a gesture of exchange, a customary practice for many Indigenous people.
As an artist, Wilson uses identity in his “conversation” with the individuals who sit for his photography. He encourages sitters to wear what makes them feel comfortable and to include other people in their photos if they choose.
“Everybody has their own will on how they wanted to be represented,” Balleto said. “Some came with the regalia, some came with normal clothes.”
Balleto added that Indigenous people telling their own stories is a chance to let other people know that they are “still existing here, still thriving.” He said this exhibit is opening a dialog for other people to find out about their ancestry.
The Delaware Art Museum’s exhibition, “In Conversation: Will Wilson,” runs until Sept. 11.
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