“The Role of Memory in Jeff Thomas’ Emergence from the Shadow” – Written by Allen Ley (Carleton University)

From October 1999 until January 2002, the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) hosted an exhibition that was guest curated by Jeff Thomas entitled Emergence from the Shadow.  In creating this exhibition, Thomas stated that he wanted to challenge the “notions of Aboriginal peoples prevalent in popular culture as disseminated through decades of anthropological research”.[1] This intention was a direct result of the significant time he had spent researching historical anthropological photographs in the CMC archives, in particular his discovery of portrait-like photographs that had been taken by anthropologists working for the Geographical Survey of Canada (GSC).  He noticed that these photographs were atypical in that they seemed to function outside of the traditional “anthropological imperative” and “simply and elegantly showed the humanity of the people” who were positioned in front of the camera’s lens.[2]  The challenge for Thomas was to see if these unique historical photographs from the CMC archives could be effectively presented in a way that would bring meaning and relevance to the present, and to realize his “quest to link the First People’s past with today’s urban First Peoples.” [3]

In order to attain this goal, Thomas designed an exhibition that would display pairings of these historical ethnographic photographs with works by contemporary First Nations artists.  He did this as a means to “explore themes of community and continuity” as well as to demonstrate “how the past influences the present in both cultural and artistic terms.”[4] In his use of historical and contemporary photographs as concurrent points of departure, Thomas ultimately created a sense of temporal movement in the gallery that blended the traditionally perceived lines between the past and present – a unique and powerful space in which both the past and the present could exist in the same moment and place.  In situating this exhibition into various Western models of memory studies, I will argue that Thomas was able to create this temporal shift through using and challenging both the personal and public processes of memory.  I will also argue that Thomas used this exhibition and its related processes of memory to challenge and disrupt pre-existing perceptions of the historical photographic archive.

Jeff Thomas was born in the city of Buffalo, New York in 1956. His parents and grandparents were born at the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario, and had left the reserve to find work in the city. A self-taught photographer, Thomas’ artistic career and practices have evolved to afford him multiple unique roles as a curator, photographer, researcher and cultural analyst. His work as both a photographer and curator involves his personal exploration of his concept of “Indianness”.  One of his key interests is in the exploration of historical cultural resources to bring voices, stories and perspectives into the present. His curatorial projects, such as Emergence from the Shadow at the CMC, have evolved from the significant time and effort Thomas has devoted to conducting research in the archival vaults of the CMC and the Library and Archives of Canada (LAC). The purpose of his archival research was to search for and analyze non-Native visual and written records in order to recover lost elements of Aboriginal history.[5]

Thomas designed Emergence from the Shadow by putting the anthropological photographs on one side of the museum in a display entitled Through the Anthropologist’s Camera, and by placing contemporary works on the other side in a display entitled Perspectives from the Urban Frontier. [6]  Upon entering the exhibition, viewers first encountered a collection of historical black and white photographs that had been taken in the early twentieth-century by four members of the Geological Survey of Canada: Charles Marius Barbeau, Sir Francis Knowles, Harlan Smith and Frederick Waugh.  The photographs were grouped according to the anthropologist who had taken them and were accompanied by text panels, which included brief statements about each photographer, as well as his unique relationships to the people that he had photographed.  The second part of the exhibition was devoted to photo-based works by six contemporary First Nations artists – Barry Ace, Mary Anne Barkhouse, Rosalie Favell, Greg Hill, Shelly Niro and Greg Staats, whose work was paired with that of the GSC anthropologists.  These contemporary artists were important to Thomas in that they, like him, explore issues relating to personal and cultural identity that face First Nations peoples today.

Thomas moved away from more traditional linear displays that are normally used to narrate an exhibition, and joined the two different parts of the exhibition together by using a circular path that moved through the gallery space – a conduit that served to underline the continuity and discourse that exists between the past and present.  Thomas also decided to challenge the conventional practices of photographic display by allowing some of the anthropological photographs to exist outside of conventional framing mechanisms.  He selected five of the historical photographs that he considered to be key images, one from each of the anthropologists plus an additional one by Waugh, and positioned them at specific intervals throughout the exhibition.  Each of these images was set apart from the others by the use of a projected circular enlargement of the image, creating a spotlight effect on the walls of the gallery that was visible to the viewer from either part of the exhibition.  By removing the frames from the images and giving then an almost ethereal character, Thomas not only physically blurred the lines between the past and present, but also challenged “traditional framing techniques and institutional authority by giving the photographs a feeling of openness”[7].  In doing this, Thomas created a discursive space between the viewer and the photographs that moved the historical image into the realm of the “real” by drawing on the photographic traditions of the documentary and the indexical.    John Berger has written that photographs can “reacquire a living context” that allows them to “continue to exist in time, instead of being arrested moments.”[8]  I argue that this ‘living context’, as created by Thomas, is directly related to the Western theoretical model of postmemory.

Thomas’ work within photographic archives was a unique, personal experience for him, which led him to note that “the archive had become a family photo album.” [9]  This discovery provides a direct  link to the postmemory model that was developed by Marianne Hirsch. She defines the unique process of postmemory as,

The relationship that the generation after those who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experiences of those who came before, experiences that they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and behaviours among which they grew up.[10]

What is unique about this form of memory transfer is that the experiences that are passed on to the subsequent generations can be so profound or traumatic that they disrupt the memory process by creating the sense that these transferred memories are ultimately part of their own individual memories. Her work originally focused on postmemory experiences of the Holocaust that were evoked by historical photographs.  This work led her to conclude that

Photographic images that survive massive devastation and outlive their subjects and owners function as ghostly revenants from an irretrievably lost past world. They enable us, in the present, not only to see and to touch that past but also to try to reanimate it by undoing the finality of the photographic “take”. [11]

In her book Family Frames, Hirsch applied her postmemory model in a more focused manner to family photographs and albums. She argued that the postmemories that can be invoked in later generations from these images are “distinguished from memory by generational distance and from history by deep personal connection”.[12]  Historical photographs therefore have the ability to bestow visual facts from earlier generations into the present, thus making it possible for the creation of many levels of personal connections for the viewer of these types of images.  Hirsch positions these visual connections as part of the “photographic aesthetics of postmemory”, which she defined as the “the photograph’s capacity to signal absence and loss”, while at the same time “to make present, rebuild, reconnect” and “bring back to life”.[13]

I would argue that Hirsch’s theory of postmemory with its associated photographic aesthetics are a key underlying component in this exhibition, as well as in Thomas’ archival research in general.  In writing about his work with archival photographs, Thomas has said that,

As  I  began  looking  through  the  photographs  made  at  my  reserve,  I  noticed that  the  captions  mentioned  the  names  of  people  that  I  had  heard  about  in my childhood. And this provoked a recollection of a conversation that I had listened to as a young boy.[14]

As a result of his postmemory experiences with archival photographs, Thomas stated that he was “forced to carry the memories of my community in my mind.”[15] In the planning stages of the CMC exhibition, I propose that it was Thomas’ postmemories that led him to the realization that these photographs that were taken by the GSC anthropologists could be “reinterpreted and infused with a new energy”, in effect creating an “intergenerational family reunion.”[16] I would also argue that the family reunion that resulted from Thomas’ postmemory experiences was a key motivator that shaped the way in which the exhibition was designed and displayed, particularly in his decision to create a temporal shift between the past and present.  In his repurposing the use of historical anthropological photographs, Thomas has used the postmemory experiences generated during his archival research “to create new ‘objects’ for viewing, by suggesting the possibilities of new stories arising from them”.[17]

In support of my this argument, I posit that Thomas was not the only participant of the exhibition that fits within Hirsch’s model of postmemory, as the contemporary First Nations artists also brought similar experiences to the museum space.  In a panel discussion that was held after the opening of the exhibition, each of the artists involved discussed how both history and memory were important components of their work.  A full examination of how postmemory functions with the six artists selected by Thomas would require a separate essay on its own, however a few key remarks are worth noting.  Shelley Niro told that panel that a lot of her work comes “from memory, storytelling, and just trying to pay homage to a lot of those ideas”.[18]  Rosalie Favell stated that family albums and photographs were significant tools in her artistic process, in particular the resulting conversations that occur when looking at these images – stories of a particular moment that “evokes the memories.”[19]  In looking at his own family archives, Barry Ace contacted each family member and asked them to give him “something from their personal life that would spark memories, some kind of signifier that would tell stories.”[20]  Through the process of postmemory, I would suggest that this exhibition ultimately created multiple family reunions.

Thomas’ exhibition design also intersects with models that have been put forward by Michel Foucault and Hal Foster that position how archives and their related objects, such as photographs, can be used as a means to challenge and disrupt established public memories.   During an interview in 1974 on the resurgence of historical films, Foucault stated that a “whole number of apparatuses have been setup ….to obstruct the flow of this popular history.”[21]   He felt that public institutions, such as archives, were designed by those in power with the intention “to reprogram, to stifle what I’ve called the “popular memory, and also to propose and impose on people a framework in which to interpret the present.”[22] Foucault argued that,

 Since memory is actually a very important factor in struggle (really, in fact, struggles develop in a kind of conscious moving forward of history), if one controls people’s memory, one controls their dynamism.  And one also controls their experience, their knowledge of previous struggles.[23]

In discussing the relationship between artists and established public memories, Foucault highlighted two key tasks that he defined as important challenges for contemporary filmmakers, artists and curators.  First, he tasked them with subverting the conventional content that is used to perpetuate the same historical lesson that is offered by those in power.  The second task was to take this subverted content and reshape it with new forms and artistic strategies.  In accomplishing this, Foucault argued that this would reveal that official public memories were a type of political apparatus, and that new visual representations should ultimately sever the traditional memories from them.[24]  He believed strongly that it was “vital to have possession of this memory, to control it, to administer it, tell it what it must contain.”[25]

Hal Foster has built on Foucault’s ideas in his examination of “archival” artistic practices in the postmodern era.  Foster argued that while sources such as archives can be familiar, “they can also be obscure, retrieved in a gesture of alternative knowledge or counter-memory.” [26]  He posited that archives are more than mere databases of objects and “as such they call out for human interpretation, not machine reprocessing.”[27]  Thomas fits Foster’s model of an “archival” artist in that the new archive that was effectively created by the exhibition “suggests a shift away from a melancholic culture that views the historical as little more than the traumatic.”[28]  I would argue that Emergence from the Shadow answered Foucault’s call to action, by challenging the traditional use and display of archival materials, forcing viewers to re-examine and question their own memories, in effect questioning the popular memory of a traumatic, colonial past.

Thomas’ Emergence from the Shadow also engages with the discipline of memory studies by directly challenging the essential nature and function of the archive.  Ernst Van Alphen has argued that the artistic works and exhibitions which have been traditionally deemed to be the most appropriate for depicting the past are “those that are history par excellence” and do not present a “fictional account of history, but that offer history in its most direct, tangible form”.[29]   I agree with Van Alphen that this notion is awkward, in that an archive cannot truly be seen as a complete historical narrative. Archives do not contain the entire history of the world within their boxes and vaults.  Instead, they only contain carefully selected remnants by archivists or artists, which are in nature only “material traces of the past”.[30]  This becomes problematic when one delves deeper into the ways in which archives are used.

The traditional role of the historical archivist has often been placed within the realms of government and public service.  The decisions made surrounding what is stored, as well as for how long, are usually functions of the state that are performed on behalf of the public at large.  While this may be the unspoken collective understanding of the archive, there are other entry points and uses that can function as interventions to disrupt and usurp the power of the traditional archivist.  One of these entrances occurs when the archive is seen within the Western models of sites of memory.  As Andrea Walsh has noted, photographic archives “frequently bring to the fore competing narratives of history and identity regarding their production, circulation and consumption”.[31]  She has also argued that people also “rely on archives of images and objects to represent human experience, and subsequently to hold the memory of such experience in a way that is humanly impossible.”[32]

The idea that archives can be positioned as sites of memory, can be traced back to theories that were proposed by Pierre Nora. In his collection of essays on the history of France, Nora used the term les lieux de memoire to describe public archives and visual representations of history as places where the “equilibrium between the present and past is disrupted”.[33]   This disruption is precisely what Thomas had wanted to happen in the exhibition space that he created.  Nora also underlined the function of the archive in the production of memory, as well as its resulting implications on the recording of history, by arguing that “modern memory is, above all archival”, and that it relies “entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image”.[34]  To Nora, the archive, regardless of the material form of its contents, represented “an unlimited repertoire of what might need to be recalled”.[35]

Nora’s ideas have had a reverberating effect in the discipline of memory studies, with many authors using his work as a springboard for examining how the archive intersects with the process of memory in the early twenty-first century.  For example, Peter Carrier has repositioned Nora’s work within the context of today’s viewers of visual archives, noting that “the rise of ‘archival’ memory has also brought about a radical modification of the forms by which memory is maintained and transmitted”.[36]  Carrier goes on to argue that sites of memory, such as archives,

Serve only as objects onto which individuals project a sense of belonging in order to construct an identity, but … they may also facilitate ‘historiographical’ consciousness by serving as objects for critical inquiry into the mechanisms by which their memories are constructed.[37]

It is against this construct that one can position the intersection of memory and the curatorial work that Thomas has accomplished with Emergence from the Shadow.

Ruth Philips has noted that Thomas “regards his archival research as a form of archaeology, a ‘digging through the archives for images of the past’”.[38] Philips also frames Thomas’ artistic and curatorial work as something that is closely linked with his archival research, arguing that “both are necessary to his goal of recovering identity through the restoration of memory to history”.[39]  Thomas has, in fact, spent a significant amount of time working with photographic archives.  His first exposure to this type of research at the National Archives of Canada served to provoke an immediate form of memory as he discovered many images of people from his reserve.  These memories ultimately led him to challenge the nature of the traditional archive, writing that the “photographic archive should reflect the reality of Aboriginal people…rather than single out one aspect of our culture and history”.[40]  Thomas’ epiphany was not unique, as Jane Lydon has discovered during her work in photographic repatriation projects in Australia.  She has argued that “colonial photographs have now become a crucial technology of Indigenous memory – and important means of producing and processing the past in the present”.[41]  Lydon has also noticed that indigenous photographs are useful tools in the disruption of the traditional archive.  She has written that,

In the creative re-working of the nineteenth-century archive we can see continuities with the past as well as newly emerged public ideas and practices, stemming from colonialism and the cross-cultural encounter. Creating a tangible, performative link between past and present, ancestors and descendants, Indigenous photographic practices challenge colonial histories, reified definitions of Aboriginality, and assert survival in the present.[42]

I would argue that Thomas, in designing this exhibition, has challenged the very nature of the anthropological photographic archive by using the museum space to create a new archive – one that uses memory and family narrative as an entry point.  In doing this, I would argue that Thomas not only the challenged the traditional Western systems of archiving and display, but has challenged the structure of the CMC archives.  In repurposing the anthological photograph to recover memories and narratives of the past, he has followed Nora and Carrier’s models in his use photographic objects to create a new First Nations identity and consciousness through the processes of critical inquiry and remembrance.

The scholar Charlotte Linde has noted, “it is now a commonplace that memory is not only a neurological process of recording, but also a social process of construction and reconstruction”.[43]   Susannah Radstone has echoed this argument in writing that one of the essential insights that has been gleaned from research in memory studies is that “memory constructs the past in the present.”This process of construction and reconstruction is particularly relevant when dealing with archival photographs.  Hirsch has argued that,[44] This process of construction and reconstruction is particularly relevant when dealing with archival photographs.  Hirsch has argued that,

As archival documents that inscribe aspects of the past, photographs give rise to certain bodily acts of looking and certain conventions of seeing and understanding that we have come to take for granted but that shape and seemingly re-embody, render material the past that we are seeking to understand and receive.[45]

In positioning this exhibition against these different Western theoretical models, I would argue that Jeff Thomas, in creating Emergence from the Shadow, has used personal and shared processes of memory to add materiality to the past that he had set originally set out to find while researching historical anthropological photographs. Also, I would also argue that Thomas has shown that archival anthropological photographs can be an effective tool in allowing memory to make possible the emergence of history from the shadow of the past into the light of the present, and onward towards the limitless potential of the future.


Berger, John. About Looking. London: Writers and Readers, 1980.

Carrier, Peter. “Places, Politics and the Archiving of Contemporary Memory.” In Memory and Methodology, ed. Susannah Radstone. Oxford: Berg, 2000.

Foster, Hal. “An Archival Impulse.” October 110 (2004): 3-22.

Foucault, Michel and Sylváere Lotringer. Foucault Live: (Interviews, 1961-1984). New York, N.Y: Semiotext(e), 1996.

Hirsch, Marianne.  Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Hirsch, Marianne. “The Generation of Postmemory.” Poetics Today 29.1 (2008): 103-128.

Hudson, Anna and Jeff Thomas.  “Edmund Morris: Speaking of First Nations.” In On Aboriginal Representation in the Gallery, ed. Lynda Jessup with Shannon Bagg. Hull: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2001.

Kritzman, Lawrence D. and Pierre Nora. Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Linde, Charlotte. “The Acquisition of a Speaker by a Story: How History becomes Memory and Identity”, Ethos 28.4 (2001): 608-632.

Lyndon, Jane.  “Return: The Photographic Archive and Technologies of Indigenous Memory.”  Photographies Vol. 3.2 (2010): 173-187.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26 (1989): 7-24.

Phillips, Ruth B. “Settler Monuments, Indigenous Memory: Dis-membering and

Re-Membering Canadian Art History.” In Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade, eds. Robert S. Nelson and Margaret Olin, 281-304.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Payne, Carol and Jeff Thomas. “Aboriginal Interventions into the Photographic Archives: A Dialogue.” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation 13.2 (June 2002): 109-125.

Radstone, Susannah.  “What Place is This? Transcultural Memory and the Location of Memory Studies.” Parallax 17.4: 109-123.

Shevi, Orly.  Memory and Power: Reflections on History, Memory, and Auschwitz in Contemporary Art and Film.  San Diego: University of California Press, 2010.

Thomas, Jeff. “Emergence from the Shadow: First Peoples’ Photographic Perspectives.”  In The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada, eds. Carol Payne and Andrea Kunard, 212-228. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

Van Alphen, Ernst.  “Visual Archives as Preposterous History.” Art History 30.2 (2007): 364-382.

Walsh, Andrea.  “Creating a New Archive: The Aboriginal Body and Identity, History, and Sense of Place in the Photography of Jeff Thomas.” In Drive By: A Road Trip with Jeff Thomas. Toronto: University of Toronto Art Centre, 2008, 27-37.

[1] Jeff Thomas, “Emergence from the Shadow: First Peoples’ Photographic Perspectives,” in The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada, eds. Carol Payne and Andrea Kunard (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011), 212.

[2] Ibid, 213.

[3] Anna Hudson and Jeff Thomas, “Edmund Morris: Speaking of First Nations,” in On Aboriginal Representation in the Gallery, ed. Lynda Jessup with Shannon Bagg (Hull: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2001), 135.

[4] Jeff Thomas, “Emergence from the Shadow”, 104.

[5] A more detailed biography of Thomas is available at the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective website at http://www.aboriginalcuratorialcollective.org/acc_community/biographies3.html, as well as at Thomas’ personal website at http://www.scoutingforindians.com/biography.html

[6] Complete project designs and photographs are housed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Emergence from the Shadow fonds, 20000-I-0016, box I-484.

[7] Anna Hudson and Jeff Thomas, “Edmund Morris”, 137.

[8] John Berber, About Looking (London: Writers and Readers, 1980), 61.

[9] Carol Payne and Jeff Thomas, “Aboriginal Interventions into the Photographic Archives: A Dialogue,” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation 18.2 (2002): 123.

[10] Marianne Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory,” Poetics Today 29.1 (2008): 107.

[11]  Marianne Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory,” 115.

[12] Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 22.

[13] Ibid, 243.

[14] Carol Payne and Jeff Thomas, “Aboriginal Interventions”, 122.

[15] Ibid, 119.

[16] Jeff Thomas, “Emergence from the Shadow”, 228.

[17] Anna Hudson and Jeff Thomas, “Edmund Morris”, 137.

[18] CMC Archives, 2000-I-0022, box I-29, Emergence from the Shadow: First People’s Photographic Perspectives, transcript of panel discussion (Gatineau, October 22, 1999), 7.

[19] Ibid, 8.

[20] Ibid, 9.

[21] Michel Foucault and Sylváere Lotringer, Foucault Live: Interviews, 1961-1984 (New York, N.Y: Semiotext(e), 1996), 123.

[22] Ibid, 130

[23] Ibid, 124.

[24] Orly Shevi, Memory and Power: Reflections on History, Memory, and Auschwitz in Contemporary Art and Film (San Diego: University of California Press, 2010), 8.

[25] Michel Foucault and Sylváere Lotringer, Foucault Live: Interviews, 124.

[26] Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse”, October 110 (2004): 4.

[27] Ibid, 5.

[28] Ibid, 22.

[29] Ernst Van Alphen, “Visual Archives as Preposterous History”, Art History 30.2 (2007): 364.

[30] ibid

[31] Andrea Walsh, “Creating a New Archive: The Aboriginal Body and Identity, History, and Sense of Place in the Photography of Jeff Thomas”, in Drive By (University of Toronto Art Centre, 2008), 28.

[32]Ibid, 29.

[33] Lawrence D. Kritzman and Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 1.

[34] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26 (1989): 13.

[35] Ibid, 13.

[36] Peter Carrier, “Places, Politics and the Archiving of Contemporary Memory,” in Memory and Methodology, ed. Susannah Radstone (Oxford: Berg, 2000), 47.

[37] Ibid, 48.

[38] Ruth Philips, “Settler Monuments, Indigenous Memory: Dis-membering and Re-Membering Canadian Art History,” in Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade, eds. Robert S. Nelson and Margaret Olin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 297.

[39] Ibid, 298.

[40] Carol Payne and Jeff Thomas, “Aboriginal Interventions,” 110.

[41] Jane Lydon, “Return: The Photographic Archive and Technologies of Indigenous Memory”, Photographies 3.2 (2010): 174.

[42] Ibid, 184.

[43] Charlotte Linde, “The Acquisition of a Speaker by a Story: How History becomes Memory and Identity”, Ethos 28.4 (2001): 608.

[44] Susannah Radstone, “What Place is This? Transcultural Memory and the Locations of Memory Studies,” Parallax 17.4 (2011):  111.

[45] Marianne Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory”, 117.

Written by Allen Ley in his 4th year of Undergraduate Studies in Art History (2012)

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