"German Indians," Dec. 4, 1999-Jan. 29, 2000, at Leslie Tonkonow, 601 W. 26th Street, New York, N.Y., 10001.
The New York-based husband-and-wife team Andrea Robbins and Max Becher photograph people and places that imitate other cultures. In 1996 they documented the architecture and local festivals of Leavenworth, Wash., a small, economically depressed town that was reinvented as a Bavarian Alpine village in order to attract tourists. They did the same in Holland, Mich., where tulips, windmills, clogs and Dutch-style architecture are used to draw visitors. For their most recent project, "German Indians," now on view at Leslie Tonkonow, Robbins and Becher photographed a particularly amusing example of cultural mimicry -- Germans dressed as Native Americans.
Though a certain level of seriousness underscores their examination of cultural appropriation -- you can't ignore the identity politics of the ethnic masquerade -- I can't help but find the worldly aspirations of small-town folk comical, and Robbins and Bechers' snapshot style emphasizes the quaintness of the pretense.
"German Indians" consists of 22 small-scale color photos. Five of the images depict children dressed up for Carnival, the Mardi Gras-like masquerade that takes over Cologne for a few days each spring. More interesting, however (kids are always dressing up as Indians), are the 17 other photos, which show elaborately costumed adults at the Karl May Festival in Raedebul, Germany. This yearly weekend-long celebration honors the birthday of the popular 19th-century German novelist who wrote sensational tales of the American West.
May's novels, read largely by German adolescent boys, spawned a Teutonic obsession with American Indians. Even Hitler fetishized them -- according to the exhibition catalogue, he made his generals carry around copies of May's books while researching the Indian reservation as a model for the concentration camp. Unlike American Western movies, May depicted the Indian as the heroic, noble savage, and the cowboy as the villain, a greedy, corrupt outsider -- a schema that has curious resonance with Nazi blood and soil rhetoric.
The Germans pictured by Robbins and Becher have formed themselves into "tribes" based on their geographic location in the country, and assemble to have powwows, sleep in teepees and reenact other rituals as described by May (who never actually went to North America). Tourists visit the camp to watch the "performances" and see how the "Indians" live.
Five individual, posed portraits show the members of one tribe draped with the most elaborate, eclectic Indian get-ups you've ever seen -- loads of beaded necklaces, tusks, fur pelts, fringe, shells, turquoise, wigs and some seriously colossal feather headdresses. Photographed "off-stage," the subjects smirk sheepishly or look quizzically at the camera, as if aware of how silly they look for taking the masquerade so seriously. Compared to the chin-up, tall-standing, proud Indian we're so used to seeing in American representations, they look a bit like children trying to dress up as adults by excessively heaping on accessories.
Twelve candid group shots show the tribe members at their teepees. They don't appear to be performing any ritual reenactments, but rather are hanging out, chit-chatting and waiting for something to happen. By capturing the Indians' non-activity on film, Robbins and Becher make their efforts look particularly trivial.
In several photos we see the chief of the tribe, a paradigm of cultural confusion. He wears a fancy white headdress, an off-white leather suit with fringe, gloves and a slew of other Indianesque finery. Stitched repeatedly on his pants and top are American flags, crossed in pairs, like a Confederate symbol. He sits on a lawn chair with an ax on his lap, looking like a cross between Evel Knievel and Geronimo.
Robbins and Becher seem to suggest that as innocuous as the German Indian masquerade is, it clearly signals a new era of global, homogenous culture, where geographic boundaries have disintegrated to the point that authentic experiences of tradition and culture are only a matter of performance.
Robbins and Becher also have a show up titled "Remotely Viewed" in the back room of American Fine Arts.
MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.