Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Richard Ray Whitman

Richard Ray Whitman in a shot from the film “Winter in the Blood.” 


Richard Ray Whitman grew up in Gypsy, Oklahoma, and attended Bristow High School. For college, he attended the Institute of American Indian Arts and the California Institute of the Arts.

Whitman is highly regarded as an artist and an actor. His creative visual art has been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the U.S., and his photography has been used in textbooks and historical compilations. His filmography is documented on his website.

He is also an activist for human rights. In 1973, he participated in the People’s Struggle at Wounded Knee and created art during the struggle. His camera and film were confiscated when he was arrested at Wounded Knee. They were never returned. Whitman later told the Oklahoma Gazette, “It became a serious joke that my first collectors were the FBI.”  

Wilhelm Murg, who wrote about Whitman in a recent edition of the Gazette, notes that Whitman’s greatest legacy may be a series of photographs he created in the 1970’s and 1980’s – the Street Chiefs project, about Indian men who were homeless in Oklahoma City.

Whitman reflected on the Street Chiefs series in an interview with Larry Abbott:

“I don't know if I could be compared to those photographers from the Depression Era. I would say the main distinction between them and myself is that I'm not a visitor to my experience and I don't see my people as merely subject matter. I didn't arrive on the street and make the images and leave. 
An image from the
Street Chiefs series.
“When I first saw a street chief, I was on my way to Santa Fe to the Institute of American Indian Art in 1968. I had a brief layover at the bus station in Oklahoma City and it was my first experience of seeing a highly visible number of Indians on Skid Row there. It was very shocking to me to see Indians in that setting, on sidewalks and in front of the high-rises, just a high proportion of brown bodies. 
“That image stuck in my mind. Three or four years later, I came back to Oklahoma City and began to take photographs. I never knew what my intent was, but I ended up hanging out on the streets myself there for about a year, which was 1973. I had just returned from South Dakota, from Wounded Knee, in 1973, and I had been packing a camera for a number of years. It was my intention to document what was happening there. 
“I think even though I was an Indian there was still a lot of mistrust and suspicion of me carrying a camera. Of course, it was the climate of the times, too. A lot of profiteers, a lot of agent provocateurs, were around then, you know, so there was suspicion within the ranks. 
“In all the years with the Street Chiefs many times I had to stand beside the work and explain it to non-Indian curators and even the viewers. In some instances the work is misread. I didn't want the work to be considered in the context of the recent phenomenon and concern about homelessness in the '80's and '90's, homelessness in Philadelphia or New York or whatever major metro area you want to name, but to bring out the idea that America is based upon and built upon displacement, displacement of indigenous people, the host people of this country. 
“I focused on Oklahoma. Oklahoma became the dumping grounds for many of the tribes who stood in the way of progress. Indians were taken out of the East Coast, the Southeast, and west of the Mississippi. I wanted to consider the Street Chiefs in that context, not just recent homeless issues. 
“The context was the removal of Indians, always pushing them off their land.  
"I gained a lot from the people I photographed. Some of the people in those images are deceased. It was a very moving experience for me there. I met many of my own relatives. I never went there with a telephoto lens, and I didn't leave when I finished shooting. It was a part of my experience. The photographs bring up the contradiction of being landless in your own land.”
Source: “A Time of Visions: Interviews By Larry Abbott”

Richard Ray Whitman
receiving the Oklahoma
Human Rights Award
earlier this month. 
Richard has enjoyed a long career as an artist and photographer, showing his work at museums and galleries worldwide, including exhibits at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and La Biennale di Venezia in Italy.

He has also worked as an Artist in Residence with the Oklahoma Arts Council, teaching art in public and alternative schools. He taught art through the Indian Youth Council and the youth at risk program at the Native American Center in Oklahoma City, and has worked with youthful offenders, teaching art as rehabilitative therapy as a visiting artist in several state corrections institutions.

Richard is a member of the Yuchi Tribe, enrolled with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. He is the father of five children and now has eleven grandchildren.

For his lifetime of achievements – including his support for human rights as expressed in his teaching, art, and acting – Richard Ray Whitman is recognized as one of the 2016 winners of the Oklahoma Human Rights Award.

Article 27
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

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