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Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum reopens with burst of ‘Seminole Spirit’

Little Miss Florida Seminole Victoria Bernard and photographer Russell James are happy to pose in front of James’ ‘Seminole Spirit’ photographs Sept. 25 at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation.
Little Miss Florida Seminole Victoria Benard and photographer Russell James are happy to pose in front of James’ ‘Seminole Spirit’ photographs Sept. 25 at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation.

BIG CYPRESS — World-renowned photographer Russell James did not seek to tell a simple story about Seminole culture and tradition when he reached out with his camera to Chairman James E. Billie three years ago.

Instead, the Australian-born artist best known for capturing the beautiful faces and perfect bodies of Victoria’s Secret supermodels sought to embrace the Tribe with his lens via his indigenous peoples art foundation, Nomad Two Worlds.

“Who am I to express what a people’s culture and tradition is? This was not about a project; it’s always been about collaboration,” James said Sept. 25 at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress during an Indian Day reveal of selections from his collective work called “Seminole Spirit.”

Three large photographs displayed in the Mosaic Gallery preview a much larger 20- to 30-piece show to be staged Nov. 6-7 during the Museum’s 18th annual American Indian Arts Celebration (AIAC).

Currently showing at the Mosaic space through Nov. 22, the first photo depicts the humble yet awesome beauty of a cypress dome. The last emphasizes the enduring strength of a mighty alligator. In the middle, mystical and out of focus, Tribal members Stomp Dance around a ceremonial fire.

The larger show opened publicly in late 2014 to an international audience at Urban Zen gallery in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It garnered worldwide media acclaim.

Shot in Big Cypress’ wild lands amid thick cypress hammocks and pristine prairies, the photographs reveal the essence of Seminole life as it was observed for two years with unusual access by James with Chairman Billie’s blessing. Jim Osceola, director of hospitality at Seminole Gaming, and Tampa medicine man Bobby Henry offered guidance and support.

“The Chairman is a man of big ideas. One of them is this Museum, which has progressed from a focus on historical preservation at first to now including contemporary works about our people as seen through the eyes of a fashion photographer,” Osceola said.

James said he created Nomads Two Worlds in 2001 after he began questioning indigenous art and culture in Australia. He then realized the stark divide of his nation’s indigenous and non-indigenous people.

“I peeled away 5,000 years and layers on top of layers of indigenous culture and then I wanted to give it interpretation,” James said.

The foundation so far helps support 10 indigenous artists in Australia, Haiti and Native American reservations in the United States.

He heard about the Seminole Tribe of Florida from an aboriginal artist in Australia and then took his first trip to see Chairman Billie in 2012.

“The nucleus of the work came from Chairman Billie’s great humor and light-spirited wisdom. Then he said something that really resonated with me during one of our early talks that helped me understand,” James said.

James asked Chairman Billie why he fought with the Army in Vietnam after the United States government had battled his ancestors to the brink of genocide.

“He told me, ‘We just have to move forward; acknowledge the past, but don’t live in it.’ When it was time to fight as an American, James Billie did, but he will never forget that he is a Seminole every day of his life,” James said.

Chairman Billie further stressed to James that tradition is preserved in facts, artifacts and customs that are carried through generations. But culture changes; it evolves in modernity.

James then loosed his artistic vision and photographic expertise to blend the Seminole cultural story, past and present, in metaphors.

“‘Seminole Spirit’ is a metaphoric snapshot – very modern, evolving, forward thinking, cool, spiritual and connected to the land,” James said.

A short film that preceded the current mini-show blended powerful images of the landscape, Tribal members and the unlikely casting of supermodel Behati Prinsloo, of Namibia, Africa, as a mythological character. The sounds of morning and night, rain and wind, and wise words spoken in Mikasuki by Bobby Henry, are edited together like poetry.

“It was beautiful. I love poetry and photography so for me it meant so much to see something so visual translate into something powerful and proud,” said Miss Florida Seminole Destiny Nunez. “We really are not just the Hard Rock and other businesses. We are a strong and beautiful people.”

Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Skyla Osceola and Little Miss Florida Seminole Victoria Benard also attended.

The event marked the Museum’s reopening celebration following nearly two months of renovations and upgrades. Also featured were live demonstrations by master woodworker Pedro Zepeda, award-winning basket maker Linda Beletso and fine art painter Elgin Jumper.

Self-described “cracker cowboy” Wilse Bruised Head provided a cattle whip demonstration during which generous portions of guava sofkee and pumpkin frybread were served to spectators.

Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank welcomed the standing-room-only crowd to experience Seminole country and encouraged guests to befriend Tribal members. He compared the opportunity to one he enjoyed more than 40 years ago during a trip with friends to the Ozark Mountains.

“We spent several moons in central Arkansas as new college graduates, and throughout the countryside we came across old folks who were as curious about us as we were of them. They were happy to share the fresh water that trickled off the mountain and happy to let us see the world as they saw it,” Rep. Frank said.

Museum Director Paul Backhouse said the physical improvements at the Museum come on the heels of huge increases in visitors. Since July, attendance has nearly doubled.

“People want to understand the Seminole story. It is the Florida story,” Backhouse said.

Improvements include roof repairs, a lighter coat of ceiling paint, new carpeting, gift shop expansion and a new wheelchair accessible front desk. Several new interactive exhibits include a traveling bundle kit game, a coontie root-sifting station and a listen and learn area at the “Guy LaBree: Painted Stories of the Seminoles” exhibit.

“It’s really cool to finally see the finished product after so many months of planning, coming up with great concepts and then going through the whole process. It’s better than I expected,” said Eden Jumper, a senior at Ahfachkee School who was a Museum volunteer last school year and a paid intern during the summer.

New signs at the Clan Pavilion were designed by artist, photographer and filmmaker Sam Tommie.

Backhouse said the reopening on Indian Day gave great reason to celebrate. He called the “Seminole Spirit” preview and upcoming show “phenomenal.”

“Seeing the Seminole culture making it into the contemporary art world and seeing it translated like this couldn’t make us any happier,” Backhouse said.

Designated as a Smithsonian Institute Affiliate, the Museum is the first tribally governed museum in Indian Country to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.