Indian American or American Indian: photographer Annu Matthew illustrates the difference, similarities

Rhode Island photographer’s new series.

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: Annu Palakunnathu Matthew – the famous photographer whose works have been shown in exhibitions throughout the world, including the Smithsonian Institution – has created a new series of photos aimed at illustrating the differences, or perhaps lack thereof, between red and brown Indians.

A diptych from Annu Matthew's "An Indian from India" (courtesy of NYT/SepiaEYE)
A diptych from Annu Matthew’s “An Indian from India” (courtesy of NYT/SepiaEYE)

In a piece published on the “Lens” blog of The New York Times, Matthew explains how her complicated personal history has led to a confusion about her own cultural identity, which she realized was shared with just about anyone she’s come across. Born in England, raised in India, and currently residing in the US, Matthew realized some years ago that people wouldn’t believe her when she said she’s from the US, and if she identified as Indian, they would think she meant Native American.

As part of an effort to not only distinguish herself, but the entire Indian American population from the American Indians, Matthew created a new photographic series that juxtaposed actual pictures of Native Americans, taken mostly in the mid-to-late 1800s, alongside pictures of herself mimicking the poses of the original photos’ subjects. These diptychs – two-paned works of art that feature two images side-by-side – offer an edifying and somewhat humorous look into two cultures that, although vastly different, are perhaps more similar than many think.

The series is entitled “An Indian from India,” and the first step towards its creation was Matthew sifting through hundreds of photographs, examining 19th century-era pictures of Native Americans in all sorts of different situations. Matthew would then take a picture of herself (and, in one case, her step-daughter as well) in the exact same pose as the original subject, but wearing Indian garb as opposed to Native American clothes.

Matthew then used Adobe Photoshop to literally place herself into these photos, some of which are more than 150 years old. The results proved fascinating, showing a lot of aesthetic similarities between the clothing and cultures of the two types of Indian.

“I’m talking about the imbalance of power between the subject and photographer,” Matthew says, in The New York Times. “That’s one reason why I turned the camera on myself. Since the portrait is of me, I am in control of how I am being represented. It was a way to hold hands with Native Americans and reverse that gaze.”

Matthew is currently a Professor of Art (Photography), and the Director of the Center for the Humanities, at the University of Rhode Island. Her work has been displayed at some of the most prestigious art houses in the word, including China’s Tang Museum, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and the Smithsonian.

She has received several prestigious grants, too, such as the 2012 Fulbright Fellowship, the 2013 SPE Future Project support grant, the John Gutmann Fellowship, the MacColl Johnson Fellowship, and the American Institute of Indian Studies Creative Arts Fellowship.

Matthew has announced that she is currently working on a photographic chronicle of minorities in America, in order to chart their rise from small demographic to becoming the majority in America within the next forty years.

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