Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

William R Wilson

Top: Auto Immune Response 2, 2005; bottom left: AIR LAB, 2010; bottom right: Kiyaaaanii Nishli, 1997  (click any image to view larger images)

By Dylan A.T. Miner, PhD

William (Will) Wilson is a Diné photographer who spent his formative years living in the Navajo Nation. Born in San Francisco in 1969, Wilson’s complex and nuanced oeuvre fully developed while studying photography at the University of New Mexico (M.F.A. and dissertation on the photography of Milton S. Snow, 2002), as well as during his undergraduate studies at Oberlin College. In 2007, Wilson won a Native American Fine Art Fellowship from the Eiteljorg Museum and in 2010 he was awarded a prestigious grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation.

Visually, Wilson’s creative practice has two central components that seamlessly merge through the dialectical machinations of a liberatory artistic project. Wilson is primarily known for his personal and political photographic installations firmly positioned within the hierarchical and conflicted “art world,” as Pierre Bourdieu would locate them. Yet, he has spent years working with Indigenous youth and youth-of-color to produce community-based murals. Through these collaborative works, Wilson struggles to rearticulate Indigenous and colonized histories in the face of their hegemonic re-writing in settler narratives. For Wilson, these two parallel projects operate dialectically, reconciling what have historically been bifurcated categories: Diné/White, rural/urban, artist/scholar, working-class/professional, and this list could be extended ad infinitum.[1] In turn, by working collaboratively these artistic projects enable Wilson and the youth collaborators to simultaneously “articulate and reconcile academic and Native intelligences.”[2] By working directly with community, Wilson is “interested in empowering others to create these texts [we call Art] and then to witness how they function dialogically, interacting with other utterances, accruing meaning as they move through the world.”[3]

Wilson’s employment of photography, a tool used to historically control representations of Native peoples, is seemingly deliberate. To counter the absence of aboriginal peoples within the landscape tradition, Wilson inserts himself within the photographs. In turn, the artist reconfigures both the photographic process and the landscape genre as entirely Indigenous in nature. In Auto Immune Response (2004), Wilson plays with apocalyptic notions of utopia/dystopia by constructing an exhilarating and post-apocalyptic visual narrative. According to Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, the “panoramic vistas created by Wilson’s intricate photomontages show a world that is both breathtakingly beautiful and, as the ominous gas masks suggest, poisonous.”[4]

Wilson has exhibited in institutions such as the Heard Museum, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and the Eiteljorg Museum. Working collectively, his large-scale public murals have been created in communities as diverse as Barrio Anita in Tucson and the Southside of Indianapolis. Through his working process, laboring either alone or collaboratively, Wilson has produced an assemblage that challenges the viewer to think otherwise (about a multiplicity of issues), while being simultaneously committed to radical political intervention. This interventionist work may be seen in his ongoing evocation of the hooghan, a traditional and spiritual Diné architectural form, which appears frequently in Wilson’s work. In 2009-10, Wilson’s hooghan was transformed into an herb garden, with the long-term prospect of integrating the space into local Indigenous food sovereignty initiatives. Through engaged practices such as these, Wilson uses his art, borrowing language from the Chiapas-based Maya resistance movement, to envision how “another is possible.”


[1] Will Wilson, interview by author, email, December 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kathleen Ash-Milby.  Auto Immune Response, Smithsonian Institution, New York, 2006,,

Artist’s Statement

Throughout my work I have focused on photographing Navajo People and our relationship to the land. While portraying this relationship I have always been aware of how our representation has never been without consequence. Historically, photography as a scientific means of categorization cannot be made separate from the social, political, economic and ecological colonization of Native North American. Photography has been used to classify and reinforce theories of racial superiority and strengthened anthropological discourse positioning American Indians as primitive others. More commonly, it has been used to reinforce negative stereotypes of Indians, pervasive throughout American culture.

My work is a response to the ways in which photography has been used as a mechanism of colonization. Decolonizing photography for the use of American Indians has to occur through the articulation of a Native representational subjectivity. In the place of colonizing representation, I want to produce images and sensory experience, which convey representation of, by and for American Indians. This means developing a methodological practice, a framework from which to draw upon. It is towards these ends that I see my work progressing.

In my work there are stories that I grew up with, stories bringing together the cultural weave from which I come. These stories are personal to me as an individual and a member/citizen of a people; therefore, they must be presented and received with respect. In a way it is a ceremony, it’s about exorcising discursive demons that have been planted in our minds and the processes of remembrance and continuance that enable us to keep functioning.

For Indians, I want to produce experiences that bring us close to home, while unsettling us with the evidences of colonization. I want my work to strengthen Indians with examples of resistance, and the possibilities of controlling one’s own representation. For non-Indians I want to call into question the uncritical consumption of images of American Indians both positive and negative. This is to be done my presenting experience that articulates a history of life constantly remembered, strengthened and continued in the face of colonization.

Additional resources compiled by students in Contemporary Native American Art History course at IAIA, Spring 2013:

Web-based Resources:

Eiteljorg Fellowship Microsite profile: Will Wilson


Selected Bibliography: