Entering the gallery, one has a sense of déjà vu. The backgrounds of the photographs are stark white, edged in black, reminiscent of Richard Avedon’s “The Family” series, in which the sitters were the entire story. Likewise, Rosalie Favell’s images give no environmental hints because there is no environment—simply the figures afloat on a white ground. This could have become repetitious but instead, it’s riveting and gives a sense of very different and separate lives, captured simply and lovingly. These are more than one hundred images of the 500 created by Favell over a period of ten years, including twenty portraits from her artist residency at Northwestern in the spring of 2023 that were made at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston. The photographs are arranged alphabetically by first name on the wall, but in a random way that Favell says suggests a social gathering, which is also how she describes the series itself.
Born in Canada, Favell is of indigenous Métis heritage. Her subjects are all indigenous artists, musicians, arts educators and writers she’s met on her travels through Canada, the United States and Australia. There are no clues in the work, which levels the playing field, and it’s impossible to decipher the career path of any of the subjects. What is most interesting is the way the subjects react to the camera and are captured—the range of emotions expressed is fascinating. In “Cathy Mattes, Winnipeg,” “Ruth Cuthand, Saskatoon” and “Michaela Marchi, Evanston,” the subjects clown for the camera, whether from nervousness or from extreme ease. Some of the subjects are intensely serious, posing as if their lives depended on the outcome—“Skeena Reese, Ottawa,” “Michael Belmore, Ottawa” and “Nicholas Galanin, Santa Fe,” look confrontationally at the lens, and “James Luna, Winnipeg” appears to be telling a story, arms raised, eyes closed. Many smile, some laugh, and several pose with their children or grandchildren.
There are a few who identify with their indigenous heritage via clothing or accessories, but most are dressed plainly, making the viewer wonder what parameters, if any, Favell gave for the photo shoots. The images portray scores of people and their reaction to the act of having their picture taken, and as with all people everywhere, that comfort level varies from person to person. In an adjoining room, there is video in color from the photo sessions. I watched, mesmerized, as one after another of Favell’s subjects changed and morphed before her camera. The videos are the key to this exhibition—the living, captivating part of Favell’s process—we think we know who we are until we stand in front of a photographer’s lens. In this beautiful exhibition, Rosalie Favell has more than succeeded at drawing out her subjects’ inner spirit animals.
“Rosalie Favell: Indigenous Artists Facing the Camera” is on view at The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, through December 3.