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Review: ‘DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition’ forces reflection on the cultural impact of modern development



The exhibit “DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition” on display at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History is powerful. Powerful enough to move former President Barack Obama to sign the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People on Dec. 10, 2010.

One hundred forty-four U.N. delegates initially voted in favor of adopting the declaration in 2007 and each of the four countries that initially voted against it (U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have since voted in favor of the declaration.

Its purpose was to establish the collective and individual rights of indigenous people around the globe, and as the declaration states, to “emphasize the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions, and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.”

The exhibit contains 32 black and white portraits of indigenous people from around the world. Photographer Dana Gluckstein had been waiting for the right time to show these photos taken over the course of 30 years to the world and compile them into a book, which contains 60 portraits. The U.N. declaration and subsequent votes against it signaled to Gluckstein that the time was now. 

“The Dignity: Tribes In Transition” exhibit is on display in the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene, Ore. on Oct. 11, 2017 (Madi Mather/Emerald)

The portraits stand on their own, captions under them would be unnecessary since the photos say enough already. Each portrait captures an intimate moment in the life of someone whose culture is in conflict with the development of modern societies. Many of the portraits show this conflict explicitly, but others are more subtle in their portrayal.

The photo titled “Goba Boys” exudes this tension between cultural tradition and modern life. In the photo, two teenage boys from Zambia are standing with an arm around each other’s shoulders. They are covering their faces with feather-crowned masks that appear to be made of recycled cardboard. One of the boys is wearing an elaborately crafted necklace that almost takes up his entire torso. Both boys are also wearing tattered modern clothes and sneakers, and one of them is wearing a Barcelona FC soccer jersey. This clash between traditional customs and globalized, capitalistic systems is mesmerizing.

“The Dignity: Tribes In Transition” exhibit is on display in the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene, Ore. on Oct. 11, 2017 (Madi Mather/Emerald)

When seen together, the photos demonstrate an appreciation of the oneness of all living and nonliving things, an appreciation that many modern societies have lost sight of. Every wrinkle, every hair and every expression on the faces of the people in the photos is sharply clear. The details transport the viewer to that precise moment when Gluckstein snapped the photo, giving him or her an impression of the individual’s essence.

Dana Gluckstein’s exhibit will remain on display at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History until Dec. 17.

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Max Egener

Max Egener