Ottawa’s Urban Iroquois Jeff Thomas honoured with Governor General’s Award for Visual Arts

Jeff Thomas. Photo: Andrew Hunter

Jeff Thomas was about three years old when his mom entered him in a beautiful baby contest. That took the little boy to a photographer’s studio where he saw a camera for the very first time.

Thomas still remembers that event. It sparked an interest in photography that has carried him all his life. He won the contest by the way.

Today Thomas is a respected photographer, curator and digital artist. The proof: he is one of eight winners of this year’s Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts which will be formally handed out on March 28 at Rideau Hall. It recognizes a life’s work with an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada that opens Wednesday, a medallion and $25,000.

He has works in major collections in Canada, the United States and Europe and he has had solo shows including Birdman Rising, A Necessary Fiction: My Conversation with Edward S. Curtis & George Hunter, The Dancing Grounds and Resistance Is NOT Futile. He has also been in many group shows SAKAHÀN at the National Gallery of Canada. He has received the Canada Council’s Duke and Duchess of York Award in Photography, the Karsh Award in photography, a REVEAL Indigenous Art Award and he has been inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Art.

Speaking from his Ottawa home, Thomas said “more than anything else what surprised me about getting the award is finding out the impact that I have had over the years.

“You do your work, you speak in universities and to groups but you never really get the full breadth of how you are affecting people. So it’s nice to be recognized.”

Thomas bought his first camera when he was 16.

“I was working at a store and I saved up enough money. I went into the camera store not knowing a damn thing and the salesman talked into buying this camera. It was a Petri and it was relatively cheap.”

Unfortunately Thomas doesn’t have that camera any more, it was stolen. But, he said, “it took good pictures.”

He bought it, he said, because he was “curious about the still image and the means to be able to make a photograph yourself rather than looking at ones taken by others.”

He didn’t start getting really serious about photography however until he turned 24.

Thomas was in a terrible car crash and suffered a spinal cord injury. There was a concern about whether he would walk again.

“I made a vow. I said if I am going to walk out of the hospital, I am going to do something that will contribute to the betterment of my community. Three months later I walked out of the hospital” and he started taking pictures full time.

He has been making art to honour his community ever since. Thomas is Iroquois and has roots in the Six Nations Reserve in Southern Ontario. He was born in Buffalo, New York and now lives in Ottawa. He is a city guy.

Out of the hospital, Thomas started using photo walks as part of his rehab.

“Each day, I went out a little bit farther. What I actually started to develop was a street aesthetic.” He also started to examine other historical photographers who had worked in the genre.

“I was fascinated by the urban world that I had seen as a young child from my father’s car and as an adult I started to revisit all those places I saw as a kid.”

His curiosity led him to the work of the American Edward S. Curtis, who had photographed Indigenous peoples in North America at the turn of the 20th century.

By the 1980s and ’90s, Curtis’s work was having a bit of a resurgence of interest.

“His work had been revitalized and it was appearing all over the place. That energized my own practice. I wanted to confront the issues related the the representation of Indigenous people. I wanted to call that into question.

“There was this detached other world associated with Indians and I wanted to connect it to the world I was part of. That’s how the focus of my work as a vehicle for social change began to take place.”

Looking at Curtis’s work he saw the similarity to people in his own family.

“I didn’t need the tribal signifiers to make them interesting.” The seed was planted and Thomas wanted to see if there was a “viable means of incorporating his imagery into a contemporary conversation on representation. That motivated me to move to Ottawa in 1994.”

He had found out that Library and Archives Canada had two sets of the complete 20-volume seminal Curtis work The North American Indian.

“I reasoned that the only way I could progress was to take the time to study all 20 volumes.”

That’s how he ended up studying Curtis in the bowels of the Library and Archives on Wellington Street.

He got a job writing new captions for photographs that had outdated language such as “papoose and redskin. I eventually wrote about 100 captions that were put onto the data base. What that gave me was access to every corner of the photo collection in the Archives.

“They had this place in the basement called The Cage where all the Geological Survey albums were housed and the Curtis volumes.”

Wandering through the Archives and pulling out photographs that hadn’t been looked at in a long time added to his appreciation for historical imagery and what it could mean if the story was told from another perspective.

“To me that’s what a photograph allows you to do. It can create a story that can be quite compelling.”

His closer examination of Curtis did change his opinion.

“I was dismayed about his work when I was younger. I felt like I was living in his shadow and I was worried people would compare me to him. What does an Indian photograph? Does he photograph all these other Indians?

“I wanted to challenge that. When I came to Ottawa and started reading and going through the volumes” his opinion evolved. Curtis wrote his own text for the North American Indian.

“What he said, in a nutshell, was that he was not primarily a photographer, which to me was unexpected. He said that he made photographs that illustrated the text he was compiling which was a historical and ethnographic study of  Indigenous tribal culture.

“In his writing he spoke about the people he worked with and acknowledged who gave him the stories. I began to appreciate what he was doing. His vision was to have an examination of Indigenous culture.”

Thomas also began to shift his practice. He started to curate exhibitions as well.

“The first exhibition I co-curated was in 1996. It was titled Aboriginal Portraits from Library and Archives Canada. At time there was an archivist there named Edward Tompkins. He was forward thinking and found a way to bring me into the institution and got me to co-curate the show. It included photographs of Indigenous people from the earliest daguerrotypes to more contemporary images.”

That first gig led to others.

“I have been called into different institutions on projects as a kind of counter-balance.”

He’s worked on an Edward Curtis show with the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, as a guest curator and with the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

That work led to a major exhibition called Where are the Children? Healing the Legacy of the Residential Schools sponsored by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation with Library and Archives in 2001. This one is still travelling.

“My work as a guest curator has been because of my knowledge of historical photography.” But he is careful to ensure he is not being used as cover for the institutions.

“I have found through my career that doors have opened for me. I have gone through them with a certain amount of trust and I haven’t been burned yet.”

For Thomas, his credibility matters.

“My elder at Six Nations, Emily General, was an activist in the ’30s and ’40s. She told me she was fired from her job as a teacher on reserve because she wouldn’t sign an oath to the Queen. That stuck in my mind.

“When I was offered a contract at Library and Archives they brought out the paperwork to sign and one was an oath of allegiance. I thought to myself, ‘I could sign this and no one will know but then I realized somebody would know. I couldn’t sign it. I told them and that caused a kerfuffle. They finally determined that I had an exemption.

“Somehow it all seems to work out if you follow a path that has integrity.”

Thomas moved on from the curatorial phase of his career about 15 years ago.

Most recently he has been looking at new technology and the possibility of becoming more of a storyteller. He is also seized by building an Indigenous audience for visual arts.

“For me especially in the beginning there was a noticeable absence of Indigenous people at the exhibitions. We didn’t have an audience of gallery goers. I feel it is important that our communities become part of what we do as artists.”

To that end he is developing large and sophisticated website.

He is also looking at a project about artists with disabilities “and how we negotiate our careers in that respect. I’m looking at virtual reality as a way to do what I have not been able to do in the past few years.”

“My spinal cord injury has really slowed me down in last six or eight years. I have had to look at ways to keep on working with less physical stress. Now I am tied to computer.”

He has also just completed a series called Where The Rivers Meet which is a look at the confluence of historical and contemporary issues of discovery and exploration. And he’s eyeing an exhibition at some point in the near future.

“Where The Rivers Meet asks how we can take negative aspects of those constructs of colonization and turn them into positives and inspire our children to become explorers and navigators.

“One of the hardest parts about being Indigenous and living in the city is you are always facing racism on one level or another. So that can be debilitating. How can we move beyond that?”

He is still taking photographs “from the car. It’s full circle in a way. A car almost killed me and now I am using it to get to places I want to photograph.”

He’s thinking about getting a scooter so he can still go out and do his work.

“I love shooting and I want to continue doing it. I have over past decade been slowly losing mobility. I went from one cane to two canes and now I use a walker with wheels. I can’t stand up and do things I used to do without that aid.”

That means he doesn’t take as many images as he used to, but the ones he is taking are more considered.

“I have been dealing with this for almost 40 years. I have always known what would happen. Each decade I prepare for a new segment (in my process) and now storytelling is the thing. I love being able to gather photos in some sort of sequence and write stories and talk about what I am trying to say.”

The award, he said, is keeping him going.

“There have been times I have thought about giving up. I can’t deal with the pain and something comes along that says ‘No you can’t stop yet’.”

He is also conscious of the fact that he is a role model for his community.

The award, he believes, raises the profile of photo-based artists who are Indigenous and who are dealing with urbanization.

One of those artists is his son Bear Witness of the duo A Tribe Called Red, has been able to blend contemporary and tribal music together in a way that has really had an impact.

For Thomas his son’s international success is something of which he is very proud.

“It’s quite a change. I started photographing him in a series called  The Bear Portraits in 1984 when he was seven. Everybody knew Bear from my photos and now the tables have turned. I love it.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.