Maria Sturm offers a candid portrayal of the Native American Lumbee tribe

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Daria Tuminas, Head of the Unseen Book Market, in conversation with Maria Sturm about her dummy photobook You Don’t Look Native To Me, which was shortlisted for the Unseen Dummy Award in 2018.

Daria Tuminas: ‘You Don’t Look Native To Me’ offers an insight into the lives of teenagers from the Lumbee Tribe living in the town of Pembroke, North Carolina. They are members of a tribe which is not federally recognised, meaning they have no reservation and don’t receive any financial support from the US government. Nevertheless, for Lumbee teenagers, being Native American is fundamental to their identity. As a Romanian-German artist, what attracted you to documenting a community with a background so different from your own?

Maria Sturm: My stepfather once mentioned to me that his friend Dr. Jay Hansford C. Vest was a member of the Monacan Indian Nation, a tribe that wasn't recognised back in 2010. I was puzzled by the concept of being ‘unrecognised’ as a community: what does it mean exactly? What criteria and institutions are involved, and how could anybody decide who you are or who you are not? In 2011, I flew to meet my stepfather who teaches at the American Indian Studies department at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. This town is the economic, cultural and political centre of the Lumbee, the largest tribe of North Carolina, and has been seeking full federal recognition from the United States Government since 1888. Dr. Vest, my stepfather told me, has blue eyes and blonde hair. I was initially intrigued by my own reaction to this fact – I had quite a stereotypical mental image of a Native American, despite the fact that I didn’t grow up watching westerns. I visited Dr. Vest’s class and asked if there were students who would like to spend some time with me, and that's how the research started. I found it interesting to learn that members of the tribe do not wear their otherness on their physique, but are at the same time firm in their identity. I became interested in this paradoxical kind of otherness which is not immediately apparent, and yet is key for self-awareness and self-representation.

"I was puzzled by the concept of being ‘unrecognised’ as a community: what does it mean exactly? What criteria and institutions are involved, and how could anybody decide who you are or who you are not?"

D.T: The dummy presents beautiful photographic works – portraits, landscapes, interiors and show how Lumbee people identify themselves in everyday life, and how their tribal identity manifests itself in various symbols, objects, clothing, jewellery and tattoos. The images are collected in an oversized publication (40,64 x 25,4cm), which was designed by Sven Lindhorst-Emme. Why did you choose this format? And how did the design process go?

M.S.: I knew from the beginning that the book should be big. I made two smaller books before – For Birds' Sake (La Fabrica, 2015) and BE GOOD (Self-published, 2015) – and I knew instantly that the current topic has to be framed by something too big to fit a bookshelf. And if it fits, it sticks out, it should maybe even be uncomfortable. The book has to call attention to a topic that is little talked about. At first, I thought of an A4 size, but Sven suggested to make it even bigger as well as to change the dimension to 4:5, so that when the book is closed it appears very narrow. After we decided the size of ‘You Don’t Look Native to Me’, Sven played with the layout of the images (the relation of the different size categories) and text while I was sequencing images. It also helped that I had already made two books before, so I had an intuitive feeling of what happens when you turn a page, the rhythm, and where I need to break it. I see ‘You Don’t Look Native to Me’ as a project with no specific end; the story is also being written. The images shown are loosely bound between a soft cover. Like the fragmented text pieces, it implies that there is more to come. The way the work is put together reflects the unstable state in which the Lumbee live in present day America, but it also tries to fight against the idea of a disappearing and romanticised tribe.

D.T.: The project was made possible thanks to the cooperation of representatives from the Lumbee Tribe community, who agreed to be photographed and tell their stories. Once published, do you see the book returning to the community in some capacity?

M.S.: Definitely. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want the book to be an elitist art object, but accessible and affordable. So far, I’ve only made ten hand bound and hand printed dummies, which is quite the opposite of having an accessible publication. Nevertheless, even out of these ten, four were sent to the community, and I am working on the ultimate goal of getting the book published. Even during the early stage of photographing, I was giving images back to people, but it is also very important to show the work to the whole community, and not only individuals involved in the project. I imagine, again, not an elitist, white cube presentation but rathe something outdoors like large scale printed portraits posted on empty billboards and walls in the town of Pembroke.

Dummybook images © Lilia Luganskaia

Daria Tuminas is Head of the Book Market and Unseen Dummy Award.

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