Feature: Matika Wilbur
By Scarlett Davis
November is bestowed as National Native American Heritage Month. Needed now more than ever, this month serves as a reminder of the vast and deeply integral contributions Native Americans have made and continue to make towards this country. Amidst a time of political turbulence, conversations which are long over due are being had and with that a window of opportunity to change the existing narrative and the cultural norms has arisen.
Photographer, Matika Wilbur, has answered this calling and has made it her mission to eradicate the negative, cliché, and tired portrayals of Native American identity and culture through her portrait style photography. Of the Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes (Washington), Matika graduated from the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Her work is highly regarded both nationally and internationally. She has amassed a lot of media attention and support with her multi-year national photography project, Project 562, which seeks to photograph people from every recognized US indigenous nation. The number of recognized nations has now grown to 567. The project has generated two successful Kickstarter campaigns, TED Talks, and interviews with sophisticated media outlets like Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, and Indian Country Today, to name just a few.
Matika has indeed expressed her work as a calling, “I aim to empower contemporary visions. I believe that my work is the answered prayers of my ancestors, as I walk the path they fought to pave.” Around November 28th, 2012 when Project 562 began, the then twenty-eight-year-old photographer had sold everything in her Seattle apartment to hit the open road with her camera and RV. With donations and money raised from her Kickstarter campaign, Matika has traveled more than a quarter million miles across the country and into the lives and homes of strangers, sleeping on couches and floors, and sometimes in her car. As of 2015, she has photographed as many as 400 tribes. She was welcomed with open arms; they housed her, gave her food, and often prayed for her safe journey home. The level of support amassed affirms the need for these stories to be told she says.
Before Matika was a portrait photographer, she was a social documentarian, as well as a Native youth teacher of ages K-12. It was in her school setting that she became grossly aware of the lack of positive representation of native culture in the curriculum; moreover; the damaging effects for a young person to not see their own potential reflected in any kind of role model fitting of their background. As a part of the solution, Matika uses her portraits to change the collective consciousness and to raise awareness of native people seen in contemporary roles like: student, doctor, farmer, professor, and mother. While her efforts and progress is profound and unprecedented, the cornerstone of her endeavors is beautifully simplistic, which is people and their stories.
There is a kind of light, but sense of hope you feel when gazing at one of Matika’s images, which are taken in black and white and then photoshoped in color or painted in certain areas with oil paint. She has an intuitive gift for truly understanding her subjects and is able to present them with an innate kind of grace, beauty, and dignity within the backdrop of their most natural settings. Rather innovatively, Matika allows her subjects to dictate the set for their portrait, “Now I shoot when people are ready, not when I feel like it, or when the sun is right.” Matched only by the brilliance of her photos, Matika has one of those radiant personalities as evinced by her TED Talks, which are inspiring to say the least. In an interview with The New York Times in 2014, Matika confessed that she was not prepared physically or mentally for the intensity of her journey. With regard to Indigenous women, more often the stories Matika encounters are of abuse and suffering but of also remarkable resilience from her people she says.
In Matika’s journey she has encountered the dark and the light, the riches of her ancestral land as well as the ravages, from the magnificent waters of Havasu to the fracking of Navajo country. While Matika Wilbur’s portraits are of a perfect moment frozen in time, her mission and the battle for sovereignty, representation, and awareness continues.
Be sure to visit Project 562’s website to follow or to make a donation at http http://www.project562.com . Also, be sure to go on Matika Wilbur’s site and follow her journey on social media at https://www.instagram.com/matikawilbur/.