Jeff Thomas Where Are You From?

Stephen Bulger Gallery ⁠ accessible_forward
1356 Dundas St W
Apr 30–Jun 11
April 30, 11am–6pm
    Jeff Thomas, Toronto, Ontario, Bear Portrait, Culture Revolution, 1984. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery. © Jeff Thomas

In his third solo exhibition at Stephen Bulger Gallery, urban-Iroquois curator and photographer Jeff Thomas presents artworks spanning his career, from the 1980s through to the present day. In the following artist statement, Thomas touches on his personal trajectory and the themes explored in his powerful photograph-and-text-based works.

Toronto has played an important role in the development of my career. My story begins in commemoration and as a review of what has transpired since I first photographed my seven-year-old son, Bear, on Queen Street West in the summer of 1984. The exhibition Where Are You From? reflects on the challenges of being an urban-born and -raised Indigenous person, and the potential of the photographic image to tell my story. In the late 1970s I was living in my hometown of Buffalo, New York, and my interest in photography led to my street-based photographic documentary of downtown Buffalo. It was during those early years that I met an Indigenous man who asked where I was from and I found myself stumbling for a response. Why should this be a difficult question to answer?

Having moved my family to Toronto around 1983, I found a very different landscape from the Buffalo cityscape and I was feeling lost. Things changed when I photographed Bear on Queen Street: I saw the need to inject an Indigenous story into the cultural mix, and changed my focus from simply recording what I saw on the streets towards becoming an interventionist. This exhibition shows the journey I took to find the inspiration I desperately needed to move in this direction. It culminates with my new multi-panel works, using a wampum belt format to tell my story.

An important question today is “where are you from?”, as more and more Indigenous people call the city home. When I was a teenager my elder once told me, “don’t forget where you come from,” as a response to my questions about being Haudenosaunee and living in a city. I had to figure out a response to her challenge that ultimately came on that day photographing Bear in 1984—so many things transpired from that image, Culture Revolution. Until that point, I had been working in a street-photography format that began in Buffalo, but when I made the portrait, I realized that a new journey was beginning. Two years later I moved to Winnipeg, where I had put my camera aside for three years until I found the inspiration I had been searching for. Living there, I studied the environment and the people, often being asked where I was from, as I didn’t look like the local Indigenous people. The isolation in Winnipeg allowed me to learn to see without my camera.

I see weaving a story that begins in Toronto, shifts to Winnipeg, then to my move back to Ontario, settling in Ottawa in 1993. There, I began concurrently working as a researcher at Library and Archives Canada and pursuing my first series, Scouting for Indians, followed by my second series, Indians on Tour. Most of the images in Where are you from? are from these two series, many of which have not been shown before. The exhibition ends with a few of my new works that take account of the history of representation and treaty-making, including an update of my first treaty work, from 1996, Cold City Frieze Treaty. In addition, there are many newer works from a road trip in Montana from a few years ago.

Presented by Stephen Bulger Gallery

Jeff Thomas is an independent curator and photographer who deals, in examination of his own history and identity, with issues of aboriginality that have arisen at the intersections of Native and non-Native cultures in what is now Ontario and northern New York state. Nationally recognized for ground-breaking scholarship and innovative curatorial practice in this area, he has been involved in major projects at such prominent cultural institutions in Canada as the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Woodlands Cultural Centre, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Library and Archives Canada. As his curatorial projects, publications and exhibitions amply demonstrate, he is committed to work dealing with issues of race, aboriginality, and gender in both archival and contemporary photography dealing with Aboriginal peoples.