Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Russel Albert Daniels’ “Mother Wound” Chronicles Industrial Intrusions on Sacred Lands

On your way to Squatters for a drink, or while catching a show at the Rose Wagner, you can’t miss them: the Temporary Museum of Permanent Change’s 14 placards, each 7-feet high, featuring the striking aerial photographs of Western landscapes deeply scarred by heavy industry and severe drought. This is Mother Wound, the work of Salt Lake City-based documentary photographer Russel Albert Daniels.

If the promise of gold and silver and the banner of Christianity wreacked havoc on Indigenous communities in past centuries, the promise of copper and uranium and the worship of capitalism continues to do so in this century. When Indigenous peoples haven’t been removed from lands rich in resources, they have suffered from those resources’ industrial exploitation.  Developed over the last two years while Daniels was on assignment for publications like High Country News, Mother Jones, and ProPublica, Mother Wound documents these massive industrial intrusions on the landscape. Of Ho-Chunk, Diné and European heritage, Daniels has a compelling personal interest in the visual narratives he creates, narratives that tell a poignant story of environmental degradation and its specific toll on lands held sacred by Native Americans.

Daniels’ images are brushed with the earth tones of the Southwest and juxtapose the curves of the natural environment with the intrusive straight lines and geometric patterns of 21st-century industry. In a couple of his images, nature dominates and tiny outbuildings or a distant power plant will be hard to spot in the massive landscapes; but in most, the eye becomes snagged by the contrasts. Drilling sites appear like pockmarks on the wonderfully intricate landscape that surrounds them in a shot of fracking sites in the Uinta Basin. At the Gene Pumping Plant near Lake Havasu in Arizona, the buildings, roads and pipes are splayed across the dusty landscape like greedy, grasping fingers.

Copper is essential for modern living, and in the San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona, several Asarco copper pit mines mar the landscape south of Tucson. In one of Daniels’ images, industry has dug deep into the planet’s crust, revealing the strata of geologic time. The terraced layers of excavation descend in concentric circles like something out of Dante’s Inferno. The absence of visible life accentuates the desolation. In another image from the same series of mines, a pool of water pumped from the mine to make way for extraction sits at the bottom of a pit — a stark blue against the earthen tones. Polluted, it is useless to the drought-ravaged communities that surround the mine. 

Uranium is another essential modern resource, the mining of which has inflicted harm on Indigenous communities through cancer, birth defects and contaminated drinking water. Russel’s arresting photograph from the White Mesa Uranium Mill, situated near the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in southeastern Utah, underscores the fraught history between Indigenous peoples and uranium mining. Containment basins become geometric anomalies etched into the landscape a symbol of the environmental and health hazards borne disproportionately by Native workers. 

Additional images, of vast agricultural fields unfurling like a quilt beneath the viewer, provide a stark reminder of the consequences of industry and consumption on a global scale. In contrast to the barren mining sites, one can imagine these fields brimming with life, yet they are parched, telling a story of human dominion and the alteration of the natural world. 

The images in Mother Wound were taken from a helicopter, 1400 feet up, the bird’s-eye view. This perspective reveals a Southwest rarely seen by those traveling highways to the next city or national park. Originally, Daniels’ images accompanied news stories that examined the impact of industry and a changing climate on these remote communities.The aerial viewpoint, once executed by artists to command a godlike view in mapping and strategy, was revolutionized by photography, lending immediacy and the veneer of truth to the artist’s imagination. It is the vantage from which we view disasters of all kinds, from earthquakes and tsunamis to bombed-out cities. We have a romantic notion that in the deserts of the Southwest lands and peoples remained relatively untouched by the modern world, but Daniels’ lens puts the lie to this notion.  

Along Salt Lake City’s Broadway, where Mother Wound has been on exhibit since the beginning of the month (an indoor exhibition of the images opens at Essential Photo Supply on Friday, Nov. 17), though each image is accompanied by a short description of where it was taken, they are stripped of the larger context of the articles which they originally illustrated. As such, the temptation is to appreciate the photographs for their aesthetic qualities, which are not few. And this is a paradox which threatens to undermine much art meant as political activism, especially photography. As documentary illustrations, Daniels’ images are extremely effective. As art, they are almost too good to look at for their own good. For instance, the fracking waste water pools near the White River in the Uinta Basin are a danger and a harm to the communities who live near them; but in Daniels’ image they are also a visually intriguing design, with multiple precedents in abstract art. We could speak of the image as … pleasurable, which runs counter to its activist aims.

Russel Albert Daniels’ Mother Wound challenges us to confront the harsh realities beneath its visual allure. As one strolls along Salt Lake City’s Broadway, the captivating aerial photographs beckon with their stark beauty, yet they carry a profound message of environmental and cultural disruption. The scars etched into the landscapes, from the exploited copper mines to the contaminated uranium sites, are not just physical alterations but also symbolic of the ongoing struggles of Indigenous communities.

Celebration of the Hand: Mother Wound
, Temporary Museum of Permanent Change, Salt Lake City, through Dec. 31.

Russel Albert Daniels: Mother Wound, Essential Photo Supply, Salt Lake City, Nov. 17 – Dec. 31. Reception: Friday, Nov. 17 from 6-9pm.

All images courtesy of the author.

1 reply »

  1. I’m impressed with your writing and description’s of my son’s photos, it’s like you don’t even need to view them though your story telling.

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