An unseen perspective

VERSO, the Robert Langen Gallery’s new exhibit, marks a series of firsts at Laurier. Jeff Thomas’s exhibit – which has been on display since last Wednesday – provides a unique and thought-provoking analysis of Aboriginal identity through photography.

It features an original combination of concepts with a new media technique. The inclusion of this exhibit also marks a first in another way: Laurier has never showcased an Aboriginal artist’s work.

For Aboriginal visual artist Jeff Thomas, creator of VERSO, the Langen gallery plays a unique role in providing the student community with contemporary Canadian visual art. With this in mind, Thomas designed the exhibit specifically for the campus gallery.

“Rather than to base it on a theme that I’ve already worked on, I wanted to start a theme to look a bit deeper – to think more behind the making of the photographs,” Thomas told The Cord in an interview just after the exhibit opened.

When viewing his work, Thomas hopes people will address their own perceptions and begin to acknowledge why Aboriginal people are portrayed in a certain way in society.

The title VERSO emerged from his work while archiving in Ottawa; Thomas explained that while looking for information on the backside of photographs, he always had the expectation of finding something on the “reverse” but never found it.

His photographs are meant for viewers to take a different viewpoint into consideration and think about what life is like for an Aboriginal person trying to uncover something about his or her past and present.

Thomas stated that his art is about exploring information, including the names of people, where they lived and what they did.

The irony is that this is the kind of information you would expect to easily find, but Thomas explains that he was unable to acquire this knowledge.

“First Nations were not looked at as people, but more as types of specimens,” he said.

His photographs deal directly with this notion of the invisibility of Aboriginals.

Suzanne Luke, the Langen Gallery’s curator, has been following Thomas’s work for years through the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto, where he is represented. Luke has taken interest in the themes Thomas addresses in his bodies of work, like the identity of Aboriginal people.

“I always kept him in mind hoping that maybe one day we would be lucky enough to invite him and have him accept,” said Luke.

Luke installed the show and included pictures of covers for a novel, telling a stereotypical Indian tale, at each end of the exhibit.

Between these book covers are all the rest of Thomas’s pieces. Luke explained that she did this to encompass the conception of a book because of the central visual that tells a narrative of his work.

One such visual element is a piece that Thomas describes as really standing out amongst his work.

It is of his son positioned underneath a small advertisement of an Aboriginal in tribal attire. Through his piece, Thomas juxtaposes the two different views of Aboriginals.

“For me, that is the photograph that speaks to a lot of the issues that I’ve pursued in my work – who or what is an Indian and who decides that,” he said.

Thomas has designed his exhibit to pose questions to students and force them to think about things in photographs that normally may be dismissed.

His added commentary gives observers something to think about that makes them question their own beliefs when they leave the gallery.

This is just one goal of Thomas’ art. For Luke, what the Aboriginal artist’s work achieves goes beyond that.

“We can learn about why we have preconceptions about anyone.

“I like that work because it deals with a certain topic and a certain group of people but his issues span broader than that.”

Thomas’s exhibit will be on display at the Langen Gallery until Dec. 5. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from 12 p.m. until 5 p.m.