The photographer explores the “highest 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 with nature through pre-colonial indigenous fashion.

His photos are currently on display at the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona.

Knox is Pee-Posh, Hopi and Akimel O’odham of the Gila River Indian community. Lui received his BA from Arizona State University in Film and Media Production in 2009 and is now managing editor of the Gila River Indian News.

The photo shoot consisted of dressing the models in O’odham clothing 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 simply to create something visually that allows native and non-native peoples to see how ingenious and inspiring our people are as natives,” said Knox.

He believes the way the plants were used is a testament to O’odham’s connection to the natural world. They used the bark of poplars and willows and the fibers of the yucca plant to make clothing and jewellery. For example, fibers from the yucca plant have been used to create hems on skirts similar to Polynesian fashion, he said. They also wove cargo baskets from the ribs of dried saguaro cacti.

“How our clothes looked before contact or even at the time of contact showed our relationship to nature,” Knox said. “How it took so long to create what we needed. It was a feat to design and create these items and I felt fashion was an avenue to show that.”

Knox gave his models the option of wearing cotton skirts and tops for added coverage, but clarified that muslin was not used before European contact. It became popular to use the material after the colonization process began displacing the O’odham culture.

“The clothes they made didn’t cover much but were 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 Cahokia art and technology space in Phoenix.

Cahokia is committed to amplifying indigenous art, design and culture. The exhibit remained there for two weeks after it opened on June 17th. Subsequently, the State Museum offered to house her.

“Good art should inspire conversations. I hope that when people see the exhibit, they feel a desire to be more involved in the world around them,” Knox said. “I’m so grateful that people believed in this project. Even when I had my doubts, they gave me their trust.”

Knox has said that photography is a passion project for him that he would like to do more of.

“I think COVID has held back some of the opportunities to work with more people on a larger scale,” Knox said. “This was my first dive into a photography exhibit. It was just a leap of faith.”

Knox’s work will be on display at the museum through December 21. He said he is proud the museum has purchased two of his images of him to keep in their permanent collection after the exhibit is packed. The Arizona State Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 4pm

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