I once read a post on tumblr saying that any portrait of a woman taken by a man was inherently an act of objectification. I think that’s a bit of a stretch: any subject of any art is objectification. The trend of photographing skinny women in their underwear certainly objectifies subjects more than women photographing women, but I don’t think that stands for art as a whole. (I would argue that artists like Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed women in an honest and respectful way much of the time, as in In Bed, The Kiss.)
But for all my defense of art and portraiture and even (I can’t believe it myself) male artists, this book was the best example of how image is somewhat ownership. Erdrich makes it impossible to separate the husband’s controlling and possessive abuse from his constant painting of his wife, intimately and often. In this case, it felt like he was more than just copying her image or portraying it – he was truly capturing it.
His abuse is clear-cut, but thornier is the question of colonialism and race. Despite trying to decenter white men in my reading, my library is woefully short on narratives by Native women. I don’t have the expertise or the lived experience to talk about this at length, but it was fascinating (in a sad way) how his possession of her body was somewhat granted because of his relative whiteness, and his entitlement was a product of his defensiveness over what percent Native he was.
This is a narrative frequently untold, in large part because Native stories aren’t focused on as they should be, but also because most Books About Art don’t focus on how art can be cruel and dangerous. It’s a shameful truth, but one we all must face.