In her new exhibition, Syilx (Okanagan) Nation artist Krista Belle Stewart performs a kind of “reverse anthropology” as she studies and documents the “Indianer” – a subculture of east Germans who dress up and role play as First Nations people as depicted in books and movies by 19th century author Karl May.
Stewart first learned about the Indianer in 2006 from a classmate at Emily Carr University of Art and Design who grew up dressing as an Indianer in Prague, where May’s western novels and films were popular.
“I didn’t really believe it and I wasn’t sure why they were doing it, how they started doing it, how many there were, if it was even real,” Stewart said.
Determined to learn more and see for herself, Stewart travelled to Germany to visit the Karl May Museum near Dresden. After touring the museum, Stewart was introduced to a group of 20 Indianer calling themselves the Band of Broken Arrows.
“It was intense,” she said. “I mean they really do dress up as native people and they associate themselves to particular tribes. So they research and they make their own outfits and they say, ‘Hello, my name is so-and-so and I’m from the Sioux Nation.’”
Stewart returned to Germany the following year to attend a Karl May festival and powwow and continue documenting the Indianer. At the time, she was unsure what she wanted to do with the photographs she was accumulating.
This spring, Stewart, who is currently based in Berlin, decided to revisit that work and met with the Indianer for the first time in 12 years to attend her first Indianer gathering. She said the gathering is a 30-year tradition with more than 700 people participating in a weeklong teepee campout.
“I’m just baffled that it’s real and that it still exists and people, even two months ago, there were hundreds of them in the middle of nowhere in eastern Germany just dressing up and playing and singing and dancing and I was the only native person there,” she said. “I couldn’t be there for the full week. I couldn’t do that to myself.”
On Sept. 19 Stewart is unveiling the first iteration of her Indianer-inspired body of work at the the Nanaimo Art Gallery.
The exhibition, Truth to Material, includes 33 large photographs displayed on the floor of the gallery depicting her experience with the Band of Broken Arrows in 2006 and 2007.
“Because of what I’ve encountered and this roller-coaster of emotions I’ve been feeling, for me to have agency within it, I feel like I need to step on them in order to process and to in some ways think about it and maybe get over some of the feelings I had during the whole experience,” Stewart said.
There is also video from this spring’s Indianer gathering and two pieces of Indianer regalia: A hand-beaded buckskin dress and an engraved silver armband stained with brown body paint.
“This is just starting and in some ways I’m wanting to continue recording, researching and archiving what I’m experiencing with them and cataloging and collecting more things,” Stewart said.
Stewart said May’s work was particularly popular in East Germany because information about the outside world was limited and stories about triumphant, free First Nations people resonated with those living behind the Iron Curtain. Most Indianer are now in middle-age and one told Stewart that it’s a “dying culture.”
“The more I work with it, I just really want to understand more about why they do this,” Stewart said. “And I’m trying to go at it from a position of leaving my heart at at the door.”
WHAT’S ON … Truth to Material by Krista Belle Stewart opens at the Nanaimo Art Gallery, 150 Commercial St., on Thursday, Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. Show runs until Nov. 10. Seraphine, Seraphine screening and artist talk featuring Krista Belle Stewart takes place at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre Dodd Narrows Room on Saturday, Sept. 21 at 2 p.m.