Curationist: Ken Gonzales-Day Finds Incomplete Histories

Former Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow, Ken Gonzales-Day, thinks about who is and who is not represented in the National Portrait Gallery and in the Smithsonian collection as a whole, while researching in the institution’s massive digital archive.

To commemorate MHz Foundation’s collaboration with the Smithsonian Open Access initiative, we asked artist Shana Lutker, one of MHz Curationist’s Advising Editors, to introduce the new Smithsonian Open Access collections to artists and talk with them about what they found. Shana and the other artists in this series are all former Smithsonian Artist Research Fellows (SARFs). The SARF residency invites artists to spend a month or two in the Smithsonian Archives in Washington DC, exploring a topic of their choice, expanding their artistic research.

For the second interview in the series, she spoke with Ken Gonzales-Day on April 3rd, 2020, while both were in Los Angeles under the “safer at home” order in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and before George Floyd’s killing in police custody was the catalyst for mass protest for racial justice and against police violence across the US.

Shana has closely followed Ken’s powerful work since the early 2000s and she was an editor on his Artist’s Project for X-TRA in 2011.

As we publish this now, months into these crises, most schools, museums, and libraries are closed, and the value and necessity of Open Access initiatives is all the more clear.

Shana Lutker: I want to start by asking you about your research project as a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow (SARF) in 2014. What was your project proposal and how did it change based on what you discovered and saw while you were there in residency?

Ken Gonzales-Day: My proposal was to look at images of Native Americans in the Smithsonian’s collections in our  nation’s capital. I was hosted by the National Portrait Gallery and wanted to look specifically at  who is represented in that collection. One of the sub-themes was to think, not just about indigenous people, but also about Latinxs and other cultures in the Americas, intersectional cultures, and minority cultures within this nation. The National Portrait Gallery has very few portraits of Latinxs, at least at the time I was studying there, so that really wasn’t a viable research project. I decided to look at the Native American side of the collection since there were a fair number of objects, and because so much Latinx history overlaps with indigenous histories in the Americas. That was the premise, thinking about who’s represented in our National Portrait Gallery, and in the larger sense, who is and is not represented in the Smithsonian.

I spent a lot of my time at the National Portrait Gallery looking at works on public view, as well as in their off-site storage facilities. The Portrait Gallery is physically connected to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, or SAAM, and I also looked at their collection. The other collection I looked at closely was the National Museum of Natural History. I looked at many of these objects in off-site locations. One site was for object storage and the other for off-site research. I was able to find, as you might expect, a number of allegorical figures of Native Americans. There’s a wide range of those in both collections, but most were in the SAAM collection. I uncovered a group of plasters that were basically painted plaster casts of figurative sculptures of Native Americans. Initially, they were not very well identified, and they were in storage. A big part of my research was trying to discover who they depicted and how they came to be in the collection. That was really the bulk of my research while I was in DC.  I learned that some had been exhibited in the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. I selected and photographed the various objects, went to the corresponding storage facilities, did whatever research I could with the catalogs. There are handwritten accession books and index cards and various kinds of historical archival material, much of which has been digitized, but those original cards sometimes contained other information that has been lost along the way.

“In other words, a lot of the information is not in a standard online search, because it may not be clearly related to the traditional way we see and catalog objects.”

SL: What kind of information?

KGD: A lot of the index cards would list the accession number, the artist or maker, and a title. But they might also have “gift of so and so,” or “purchased by,” or, in some cases, as with the Native American casts, there were notes that they had been copied and sold to other institutions. As part of my discovery process, I also learned the Smithsonian (which in the mid 1800s was still known as the United States National Museum), had acquired a number of casts of African people from the Natural History Museum in Paris (Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle), and that in exchange, the US museum may have sent casts of Native Americans to the French museum.

I also photographed a number of other racial, cultural, and ethnic groups in the Natural History collection, but the focus of the research was around the image of Native Americans.

SL: So, some of that research and work that you did at the Smithsonian is still percolating and could find its way into an exhibition or book sometime soon?

KGD: Maybe not so soon. Some of the work is very complicated and is difficult to share.

I’m looking at some of my photos of the catalog cards now. Some of them have handwritten notes saying that the object was moved to physical anthropology on this particular date, or acquired by a collection on that date. In some cases, there might be additional information about the models, their height, their weight. Some of the objects have different kinds of information connected to them. In other words, a lot of the information is not in a standard online search, because it may not be clearly related to the traditional way we see and catalog objects.

SL: Let’s turn to this image of the stereoscope.

KGD: I went to the Smithsonian Open Access Learning Lab site, and I began to look up some of the objects I had researched, to see if any of the ones I’d photographed were available and, if available, what I might find now. When I did the research, originally, there was no central search resource. One of my questions for this open access tool was, will this technology help researchers do their research? That’s how I started. I typed in “Fort Marion,” which is a fort in Florida that was used to house Native Americans. In this particular instance, Native American prisoners, who were held there for a number of years and ultimately released. The details of that story are elaborate (additional resources here), but the short version is that there were over 60 Native American prisoners held there. This image is identified as possibly being of that group, and that it is part of the “St. Augustine” series.

It says, “Subject: Pratt, Richard Henry 1840-1924” implying that the image is from Pratt but it’s unclear what that means.

SL: Yes, could mean he’s credited as the photographer? Below, it says the George V. Allen photograph collection.

KGD: Pratt was the guy who created the Native American schools and imagined the whole structure that separated children from their families.

And he also was responsible for the group of imprisoned Native Americans. He probably didn’t take the picture.

Many of the prisoners, while they were incarcerated, spent their time—they had years to spend—making drawings.

But I do know that, at some point, he invited Clarke Mills to come and make casts of the prisoner’s faces. This was connected to Mill’s exploration and belief in phrenology and racial positivism.

On the image that you see, it clearly shows that there was some element of a spectacle. These Native Americans were brought to this new location, and they’re being put on display. Whether these are the exact prisoners or another group, we can’t know for sure from looking at this image and the information attached to it. It is relatively low resolution. I do have portraits of some of the other prisoners. But I don’t have enough information here to be able to do an identification of any of them. For me, this photograph points to history. It points to this particular real-life event, and to the larger question of how Native Americans are represented in our nation’s capital.

SL: My parents live quite close to St. Augustine now and I’ve been to Fort Marion a number of times. The city has retained so much of the colonial architecture, the fort, the cobblestone streets. It’s a bustling tourist destination, but St. Augustine is still a strange and spooky place.

KGD: Yes, in the sense that there’s an unrecognized history within the landscape. Part of my work, in general, has been to go back and try to find forgotten histories and to give them new form.

I think the other part is that now we have more time to notice.

Looking at the image, it’s interesting that some of the figures are strangely doubled here, in the stereoscopic view.

SL: Yes, I noticed that in each image, there’s a different blurred figure in the center row, swaying in the shot.

KGD: Yeah, it’s great. It’s hard to tell for sure if she is in this image, but in the original group of prisoners, there was a woman named Mochi, who was the wife of one of the prisoners. It has been said, she asked to go along because she didn’t want to be separated from him. Was she a prisoner?

SL: A voluntary prisoner.

KGD: Yeah, for about four years. The prisoners were separated from their families. Some never made it back home. Again, it’s an elaborate story. Part of my research at the Smithsonian was to look at the casts in the collection of the National Museum of Natural History that Pratt had commissioned at Fort Marion.

SL: Were you able to match people in the photographs to the casts?

KGD: Yes. I was able to photograph about 16 of the 60 casts and identify them.

SL: And those are some of the names included in the list here on the PDF?

KGD: Yes, this document includes the letter from Brigadier General Pratt and the history of their incarceration including some of their specifics, like weight, height and age. Some of these details are leftovers of racial positivism and efforts to catalog and construct different races.

Perhaps most importantly, for me, is that a number of the prisoners were actually Mexican. These were Mexicans who had been kidnapped as children, lived as First Nations people, and who fought and were imprisoned alongside them. And yet, again, we don’t find much, if any, acknowledgement of Latinxs in that context—in historical narratives, museum exhibitions, or published works.

So my work on that continues. That’s the ongoing project.

SL: On the list of prisoners on the PDF, 12 or 13 people are identified as Mexican.

KGD: Yes. Though, because my residency was only for a short amount of time (I was there for about a month), I was not able to photograph all of the casts. And because many of the First Nations communities have different views on the existence of these plaster casts, I have chosen not to exhibit them yet.

SL: The other image you chose, I love it so much. A Cheyenne drawing of different species of birds from 1875. 

KGD: Yes. Many of the prisoners, while they were incarcerated, spent their time—they had years to spend—making drawings. They would make these small drawings and often sell them to visitors, or in some cases, collected them in books.

The drawings are available to see online. I just picked one to give an example. Many of them show soldiers, different battles, various aspects of their life back home. In the description, if you go to the bottom, it says they’re made by “unidentified Cheyenne artist at Fort Marion” and are part of a book of drawings. I did not get to see that book when I was there. It wasn’t available, or it wasn’t available in the timeframe I had. The only time I’ve seen these is when they’re exhibited elsewhere.

This is a beautiful drawing, thinking about all the different kinds of birds and the way that memory of home is invoked within it.

It is great that the Smithsonian archive resource is here. Now that we’re all trapped in our houses, it’s a great way to think about what we could do, to think about drawing—it’s just the simplest way to communicate. This is a beautiful drawing, thinking about all the different kinds of birds and the way that memory of home is invoked within it.

SL: It’s really lovely. And yes, now, when spending so much more time inside the house or on walks around the neighborhood, I have been noticing the birds. We hear the stories of the dolphins coming back to the Venetian canals—whether or not that’s true—I feel I can say the birds are out more. They’re braver, they’re out in front of my house, the hawks seem to have multiplied. I feel that they’re appreciating this quiet time.

KGD: I think the other part is that now we have more time to notice. This morning, speaking of birds, I was looking out my window, and I saw these really cute little chicks bouncing around on the branches. And I thought, of course, those birds probably live here all the time, but I’m usually not sitting here long enough to notice.

This drawing is a great reminder of what we carry within us.

I think there’s multiple sides—the world you know is the world out there around us, but it’s also the world within us. This drawing is a great reminder of what we carry within us.

More about Unseen at the National Portrait Gallery,

More about Ken’s Profiled series

To read at Curationist