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Venice Biennale 2009 - “Rendezvoused” - Nancy Marie Mithlo, Curator

The exhibit “Rendezvoused” will open at La Biennale di Venezia 53rd international arts exhibition in collaboration with the Department of European and Postcolonial Studies, University of Ca' Foscari, Venice on June 5, 2009. “Rendezvoused” is curated by University of Wisconsin-Madison Assistant Professor of Art History Nancy Marie Mithlo and features the work of photographer Tom Jones and painter Andrea Carlson. Mithlo has a record of producing innovative Native arts exhibits in Venice (1999, 2001, 2003 and 2007: utilizing culturally-informed curatorial practices.

The exhibit “Rendezvoused” concerns the transfer of cultural capital and questions the significance of restoration from varied perspectives. The original term rendezvous references the historic experience of fur traders and buck skinners of the American colonial period 1640 to 1840. Today rendezvous describes a contemporary movement in which living history re-enactors gather to camp outdoors and role play as historical personas , dressed in primitive clothing and using re-created props and shelters of period settings. An emphasis on what is perceived as accuracy in material culture permeates these gatherings, but there is also present a spirit of communalism and a desire to return to romanticized social values of trust, resiliency, skill and sharing. Today’s rendezvous participants engage in a fantasy interpretation of lifestyles and characteristics in which American Indians are often romantically portrayed by non-Indians. Our exhibit proposal positions the Native artists and curators of IA3 as observers and commentators on invented histories. Rather than staging a reactive negative commentary about false identities, “Rendezvoused” seeks to understand the deeper significance of “render” in which restitution and surrender permeate our enactments of imaginary selves.

Jones, a Ho-Chunk Native, photographed the rendezvous phenomenon in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana over the past year for this series. His carefully staged portraits of rendezvous participants are imbued with a sense of noble sincerity and worth. A slightly over-weight man dressed as a Chippewa Indian dog-soldier sports a red-painted face, traditional roach headdress and calico trade shirt. His pioneer wife sits demurely beside him looking into the distance with their wigwam lodge forming a peaceful background. Yet beneath the man’s authentic leather moccasin, a dusty plastic bag stubbornly betrays the modernity of their world. Jones does not seek to embarrass but to expose this classless constructed utopia where mechanics, lawyers or office-workers regard each other as fictive kin. Careful attention is paid to the nature of posturing. Given the basis of constructed truths that rendezvous participants draw from (Hobbyist books, old Western films, Curtis photographs), we are able to see how they see us. If the rendezvous movement operates on the notion of contrast (“I am not an office secretary, but a Métis woman of the 1840s”), then what space can Native Americans themselves occupy today?

Similarly, Carlson’s paintings and drawings take as their subject matter the exchange of goods, ideas and body fluids inherent in the fur trade area of northern Minnesota (See: An Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) woman of mixed European ancestry, Carlson depicts origin stories in which the Windigo, (often translated as "winter cannibal monster") misidentifies those it consumes. The concept of consumption is central to her description of trade and reciprocation between different cultures. Carlson’s intense juxtapositions of European trade goods such as teapots with mythical animal beings wearing energies as black-and-white patterned blankets confront the viewer with an assault of images and meanings that are not easily resolved. She states, “I am interested in cultural territories, where distinctions become blurred and perceptions of authenticity are bought into question.” The nature of reality is debated in both artists’ fascination with cultural inventions that juxtapose what is perceived as traditional with the modern. Yet, rather than forming a seamless happy hybridity of influences, these artists seem to suggest that boundaries are necessary to the human condition and are often best expressed in fantasy settings where we inversely expose ourselves by being what we are not, therefore consuming and ultimately destroying the objects of our desire.

Organizational Background

In the year 2007, remarkably, a Native American art presence is a standard feature of the Venice Biennale. The chronology runs from 1995 when Edward Poitras represented the Canadian pavilion with Gerald McMaster curating, to 1997 as Brenda Croft, Hetti Perkins and Victoria Lynn co-curated artists Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Yvonne Koolmatrie, and Judy Watson at the Australian pavilion. The year 1999 marked the first exhibit sponsored by the Native American Arts Alliance (later named the Indigenous Arts Action Alliance, IA3) with artists Harry Fonseca, Bob Haozous, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Kay WalkingStick, Frank LaPena, Richard Ray Whitman and poet Simon Ortiz participating. In 2001, IA3 returned with Bob Haozous, Gabe Shaw, Richard Ray Whitman and poet Sherwin Bitsui. In 2003, the IA3 featured the work of Shelley Niro and Sherwin Bitsui at the University of Venice with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) hosting the opening events. The year 2005, the NMAI exhibited the work of James Luna with no IA3 participation. In 2007, the Canadian-based arts collective The Requickening Project in collaboration with IA3, exhibited Lori Blondeau and Shelley Niro at the University of Venice with Mithlo and Ryan Rice as co-curators and Elisabetta Frasca directing. Thus the IA3 collective, inspired by our indigenous colleagues in 1995 and 1997, pioneered the first solely American indigenous representation at the Venice Biennale in 1999, co-sponsored and then lent the exhibit to the Smithsonian, with the Smithsonian Institution ultimately gaining official Biennale recognition alone by 2007 (at which time a hefty $30,000 Biennale fee was instituted).

Our exhibition in Venice means much more than simply garnering the prestige of inclusion. IA3 aims to build upon our long-term and meaningful collaboration with intellectuals and artists in Venice that support our overall aims of cultural inquiry, sovereignty and intercultural exchange. Exhibition in Venice transforms artists who are enabled to interact among their peers internationally. The Biennale as perceived by IA3 in our first 1999 exhibit represented the primary site of a global arts stage. This non-profit organization petitioned and was accepted by the Venice Biennale offices as a sovereign nation for the exhibition “Ceremonial” at San Stae in 1999, marking the first contemporary Native American arts exhibition in the Biennale’s hundred year history curated and sponsored by a Native American group. Originating in the Indian arts market-saturated region of Santa Fe, New Mexico, our art collective seeks as its mission “to allow Native artists the opportunity to present their work on an international stage outside of market constraints.” We anticipate that our 2009 presentation “Rendezvoused” will fully enhance the curatorial efforts of Daniel Birnbaum, director of the 53rd International Art Exhibition.


Tom Jones is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his MFA in Photography and a MA in Museum Studies from Columbia College in Chicago, IL. He was the curator for the show “Dressing Up” for the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, Illinois and the traveling show America First People, New People, Forgotten People. He is currently collaborating on a future show of Horace Poolaw’s photographs with Dr. Nancy Mithlo. Jones is the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian, Polaroid Corporation, Sprint Corporation, The Chazen Museum of Art, The Nerman Museum, The Museum of Contemporary Photography, and Michigan State University Museum.

Born in 1979, Andrea Carlson grew up in Minnesota, and is an MFA graduate of Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She has been the recipient of a McKnight Foundation Fellowship (2007-2008), a Blacklock Nature Sanctuary Fellowship (2007), and a Minnesota State Arts Board, Cultural Community Partnership Grant, in collaboration with the Soo Visual Arts Center (2005). Carlson was awarded Best in Show, Ojibwe Art Exhibition at Leach Lake Tribal College, Bemidji, MN (2004), and has been widely reviewed. She lectures regularly at the University of Minnesota. In 2008, Carlson was invited to present her work at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in a yet to be named exhibition.

Tom Jones
Andrea Carlson