Photographer explores 'Ultimate Sophistication' of pre-colonial O'odham fashion
The relationship between human cultures and nature is symbiotic and can be reflected in many ways. Arizona photographer Kyle Knox worked to create photographs that conveyed that relationship to nature through pre-colonial indigenous fashion.
His pictures are currently on display at the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona.
Knox is Pee-Posh, Hopi and Akimel O'odham from the Gila River Indian Community. He earned his bachelor's of fine arts at Arizona State University in film and media production in 2009 and is now the managing editor of the Gila River Indian News.
The photoshoot consisted of dressing models in O'odham clothing that was worn by women before European colonization. The clothing strikes a balance between art and function that Knox calls "the ultimate sophistication."
"My desire for this exhibit was to simply create something visually that would allow native peoples and non-native people to view how ingenious and inspiring our people as natives are," Knox said.
He believes the way plants were used is a testament to the O'odham connection to the natural world. They would use bark from cottonwoods and willow trees, and fibers from the yucca plant to make clothing and jewelry. For example, the yucca plant fibers were used to create borders on skirts similar to Polynesian fashions, he said. They also wove burden baskets with the ribs of dry saguaro cacti.
"The way that our clothing used to look pre-contact or even at the turn of contact showed our relationship with nature," Knox said. "How it only took so much to create what we needed. It was a feat in designing and creating these items and I felt like fashion was an avenue to show that."
Knox gave his models the option to wear cotton skirts and tops for added coverage, but clarified that muslin wasn't used before European contact. It became popular to use the material after the colonization process began to shift O'odham culture.
"The clothing they used to make didn't cover much but it was enough to protect themselves," Knox said.
Knox said he didn't want his photographs to live online. He wanted them to exist in a physical gallery. The show was first hosted at the art and tech space Cahokia in Phoenix.
Cahokia puts efforts into amplifying indigenous art, design and culture. The exhibit was there for two weeks after its opening on June 17. Afterwards, the State Museum offered to host it.
"Good art should be inspiring conversations. I hope that when people see the exhibit, they feel the desire to become more involved with the world around them," Knox said. "I'm so grateful people believed in this project. Even when I had my doubts, they gave me their trust."
Knox said that photography is a passion project for him that he would like to do more.
"I think COVID put a damper on some of the opportunities to work with more people in a larger scale," Knox said. "This was my first dive into a photo exhibition. It was just a leap of faith."
Knox's work will be on display at museum until Dec. 21. He said he is proud the museum purchased two of his images to keep in their permanent collection after the exhibit is packed away. The Arizona State Museum is open Tuesday - Saturday from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Bianca Morales is TucsonSentinel.com’s Cultural Expression and Community Values reporter, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.