How should we read these fields of red ink? As analysis? As adornment? As utterance? The convergence of all of this in a decisive act of archival intervention?
We are looking at two kinds of records here: a photograph and a narrative, archival matter and the story at its fringes. Pictured here is Alaxchiiaahush, a leading member of the Crow Peace Delegation. He sits for a studio portrait by photographer Charles Milton Bell while on a visit to DC, where he partook in territory negotiations with President Grant. When Wendy Red Star found this picture—and scores of others—in the National Anthropological Archives, she encountered a silence: there was no identifying information about the sitter, his life, or his character. And so she filled this silence with a red pen, coating this once-anonymous photographic record with language, sewing up holes in the archive with the thread of Alaxchiiaahush’s life.
Red Star has taken care with her pen. Heavy and bold, it curves along the outline of Alaxchiiaahush’s portrait with astonishing precision, clinging faithfully to the details of the picture: the folds and patterns of his shirt, the beaded necklaces draped atop it, his hair. Only the perimeter of his profile—that delicate flash of his visage—remains untouched.
Plumes of Red Star’s script encircle his head, crowding empty space with arrows and annotations. Some of this writing is purely informative, exactingly factual in tone: “white clay” or “hair extension strap made from a beaded horse harness.” But then the first person begins to sing with Alaxchiiaahush’s subjectivity, as if he is telling his own tale through Red Star’s ink: “My father was Medicine Bird; My mother was Otter Woman” or, “My log home was inspired from a visit to Mount Vernon.” Direct quotations enter the picture too, the ink conjuring up not only a story, but a voice.
I confess that the ink initially made me uneasy, and perhaps still does. When I look at this artwork, I first have to deal with the fact that behind it is a complicated, slippery history of portraiture. I had to deal with the fact of what photography of the late nineteenth century was weaponized towards, what cameras were doing to racial others in the name of “science.” I look at the swarms of red covering this portrait, at the dissecting clarity of the pen, and all of this comes slipping into mind, frightening specters of ethnography and anthropology haunting my encounter with Red Star’s artwork.
But a different kind of analysis is at work here. A scrutiny that is animated by a reparative gaze. How is the archive troubled when care seeps into this style of notation, when this red ink no longer signifies empirical analysis? What kind of epistemic freedom and redress occurs when these tactics of labeling are figured as an intergenerational dialogue rather than as restrictive—and often brutal—categorization? What happens when outlining becomes a strategy of enshrining rather than delimiting?
I ask these questions: my discomfort with Red Star’s intervention is a generative one. I’m unaccustomed to seeing red ink work like this. This is not the kind of scrutiny I was expecting. Indeed, there is an investigative eye operating here: for this is an exercise in uncovering, a work of excavation and notation. But it is also a work of dialogue, a conversation between Red Star and Alaxchiiaahush, whose voice calls out in red out from underneath history.