Jeff Thomas, Indians on Tour — Carolyn Hickey, The Indigenous Map Maker’s Room

[Summer 2022]

An interview conducted by Carolyn Hickey

The exhibition The Indigenous Map Maker’s Room at the Latcham Art Centre1 resurfaced Jeff Thomas’s series Indians on Tour, which he began some twenty years ago. The series has continued to evolve and has generated other, parallel series. In this interview conducted by Carolyn Hickey, the exhibition curator, Thomas speaks about his methodology, the overarching questions inspiring his research, the place of narrative in his work, and the importance of travelling through and inscribing an Indigenous presence in the territory.

Carolyn Hickey: Your specific work included in The Indigenous Map Maker’s Room connects through a theme of mapping, historical map making, storytelling, and the invisibility of Indigenous history. In this exhibition, the viewer was able to track and follow along through each image through the QR code provided. Can you speak to the map-making elements and the process of photography at these locations? Are there any integral moments that led to the choice of these specific locations?

Jeff Thomas: Actually, there’s quite a few because I’ve been using these figurines since 2000, and they’ve travelled with me in Europe and the United States. It all began in 1992, when I took a road trip across the United States to present a counter-image to the Christopher Columbus celebrations that were taking place that year for the five-hundredth anniversary. I had planned a trip to go down from Kingston to St. Louis and up through to Chicago. I found that shortly after I had begun, I wasn’t as well prepared as I thought I was. In part, it was seeing the landscape on a much larger level and not being familiar with it. I didn’t know what to photograph or focus on and how to find a focal point in the landscape. When I returned to Canada, I was having a really hard time with the lack of images I’d made. My friend told me about the Champlain monument in Ottawa, and it had an Indian figure at the base of it. There was also an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada at the time that was curated by Robert Houle titled Land, Spirit Power: First Nations and the National Gallery of Canada,2 centred on the European presence in North America. I went to many national sites as well as the Champlain monument, which I photographed. I had this out-of-body experience of actually interviewing this figure because he looked so life-like. It wasn’t until after that I found out that he was modelled on a living Indigenous person in the early twentieth century. This led to a series called Scouting for Indians, which simply was travelling around looking for any kind of visual representation that existed. Such as the Bank of Montreal, which traditionally has two Indian figures on a crest. So, it was really interesting that I had my focal point now and I began to examine the landscape in Ottawa and I found quite a few sites that had some sort of Indian content in them…

1 The Indigenous Map Maker’s Room was presented from October 30, 2021, to January 2, 2022, at the Latcham Art Centre, in Stouffville, York municipality (north of Toronto).
2 From September 25 to November 22,1992.

[ Complete issue, in print and digital version, available here: Ciel variable 120 – FIGURES OF AFFIRMATION ]
[ Complete article and more images, in digital version, available here: Jeff Thomas, Indians on Tour — Carolyn Hickey, The Indigenous Map Maker’s Room ]