Tom Jones Centers Ho-Chunk Visibility in his Art

JoAnn Jones, 2015
29 x 23.5 inches framed
digital inkjet photograph with glass beads
edition of 5 + 2 AP

Tom Jones has been making art for and about the Ho-Chunk people for some two decades. While his work has in recent years garnered mainstream attention—he’s currently a featured artist in exhibitions by the Met and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, among others—he sees his primary audience as the Ho-Chunk people. But regardless of audience, writes Hyperallergic’s Stacy L. Platt, he approaches his work with sensitivity, and with a sense of photographic history in mind. “Ever mindful of the legacy of Edward Curtis and his portrait series The North American Indian, Jones finds ways of creating images that speak to the individual within the collective, instead of individuals as collectives”:

She continues:

Many of Jones’s subjects wear traditional Native dress, though there are notable exceptions of t-shirts, khakis, suspenders, overalls, and camouflage motifs. The sitters wear what they want to the session, something Jones’s portraits share with Charles Van Schaik, a 19th-century photographer who photographed the Ho-Chunk people not as cultural props, but as paying customers having portraits taken for personal use. As with Van Schaik, Ho-Chunk people arrive at Jones’s studio with an idea of how they want to be seen. In most portraits the sitter looks directly at the viewer, disallowing viewers to impose a cultural projection without the subject “seeing” them do it.

This attention to his tribe means that he has a large body of work that he won’t show, now or possibly ever, out of deference to the Ho-Chunk Nation.

When asked whether or not he hopes to exhibit that work someday, he answered, “It’s not really important to me that the outside world sees it.” Much of it exists as future documents for Ho-Chunk members, as elements of an archive. Conversely, in work like Strong Unrelenting Spirits, Jones sees his role as creating visibility for his people. “That visibility is important to me. I think about the young kids, the teenagers, and I think being able to see yourself represented in art is so powerful.”