Abstract

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, various genres of visual art in North America feature Indigenous subjects looking from the canvas or the screen at the viewers to interpellate them as implicated in the gaze framing the artwork. In this article, I provide an historical genealogy of this returned gaze, starting with Simon van de Passe's 1616 engraving, Matoaka als Lady Rebecca. I show how subsequent depictions of Pocahontas depart from the reciprocal gaze of Van de Passe's portrait and how contemporary art returns to this theme of the returned gaze, using Shelley Niro's video work The Shirt (2003) as an example. The Shirt deploys the returned gaze as an indictment of settler colonialism in North America yet frets that this kind of indictment becomes too easily co-opted as the familiar trope of the Indian complaint, its public circulation strengthening the multiculturalist credentials of North American democracies. So Niro frames The Shirt with two momentary gestures of willful looking away from the camera, to some unrepresented elsewhere, thus reconfiguring the entangled gaze of contemporary North American art. The looking elsewhere bypasses the scopic regime that endows the viewer with mastery while it reduces the Indigenous subject to the object of this masterful gaze. Further, it implies a political and social space of privacy and agency that does not have to be made transparent and accessible for the benefit of the settler viewer's enlightenment. The Shirt makes clear, however, that such an attempt is paradoxical: the looking elsewhere reconfigures the dominant gaze but remains entangled with it nevertheless.

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