Edward Curtis saw his job as that of creating a photographic record of “the vanishing race of the North American Indian.” His work therefore became as much a projection of colonial attitudes upon aboriginal peoples as it was an authentic record of their lives.
The Edward Curtis Project began when the Presentation House Theatre commissioned Marie Clements to write a play that would stage the issues raised by Curtis’ monumental but controversial achievement?to dramatize not only the creation of his twenty-volume photographic and ethnographic epic and the enormous commitment, unwavering vision, sacrifice, poverty and ultimate disappointment it represented for the photographer, but also the devastating legacy that his often misrepresentative and imposed vision had on the lives of the people he touched.
Upon receiving the commission, Marie Clements immediately asked photojournalist Rita Leistner to create a parallel photographic investigation of Curtis’ work?to question the practice of documentary photography with the very medium under scrutiny. After two years of retracing Curtis’ footsteps, travelling to First Nations communities throughout North America, Clements finally felt that between them: “We were making our own pictures out of our own beliefs and they were adding up. We were inside the lies and beauty of history, of gender and class, we were making a case for the future.”
This collaborative work of two artists, to take Curtis’ photographs to heart and to see who and what might live inside them today, resulted in a profoundly moving new drama by Marie Clements, and a spectacular contemporary photo exhibit by Rita Leistner. Published together here, they illustrate the trauma that the notion of a “vanishing race” has inflicted on an entire people, and celebrate the triumph of a future in which North American First Nations communities “are everywhere and it is beautiful.”close this panel
Marie Clements is an award-winning Métis performer, playwright and director whose work has been presented on stages across Canada, the United States and Europe. A fellowship award from the BC Film Commission enabled her to develop the film adaptation of her stage play, The Unnatural and Accidental Women. She is also a regular contributor on CBC Radio. The world premiere of Copper Thunderbird is the first time Canada’s National Arts Centre has produced the work of a First Nations playwright on its main stage.
In 2003, as an independent photographer unable to get a military embed, Rita Leistner walked from Turkey to Iraq with Kurdish smugglers. That summer, she brought home some of the first photographs of Iraqi detainees, which would be published world-wide. Rita went on to publish feature stories and photographs on subjects including American Cavalry soldiers, women patients at Baghdad’s al Rashad Psychiatric Hospital, gravediggers during the 2004 Siege of Najaf and fighters of the Mahdi Army in magazines such as Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and The Walrus. In spite of being captured, threatened, and hit in the head with a brick, Leistner resolutely continues to work with a short lens, creating startling photographs that are strikingly intimate.
?The Curtis Project, our choice for Gold at the Cultural Olympiad — I was moved!”
” The Globe & Mail
?Ambitious and wildly creative.”
” Janet Smith, The Georgia Straight
?Powerfully challenging — the design is superb”
” Martin Millerchip, Curtain Call
?Witnessing has its costs, its collateral damage. Artists run the risk of vicarious traumatization, but being forced to look is a far different act than forcing a look.?