The American West has always been a rich source of symbol and myth, defining our national character. But what it says about us is interpreted quite differently at home and abroad.
Great Bend, Kan., native and Louisiana State University assistant professor of photography Jeremiah Ariaz (“Aries”) became fascinated with modern day Buffalo Bill-type Western shows that are still popular in Germany. He traveled to five permanent stage sets in five German cities to explore themes of cultural appropriation.
His photographs are populated by elaborate sets and Germans dressed and made up to look like Indians. Ariaz discovered that while Americans revere the cowboy as the embodiment of American independence, self-sufficiency and strength, Germans find in American Indians a symbol of community-minded people living in harmony with nature.
Ariaz’s exhibition, “Staging the West,” is on display through Sept. 4 at the Volland Store in Alma, Kan. In addition to the German series, some photographs in the show were shot in Spain on remnants of movie sets from so-called spaghetti Western films shot in the 1960s and ’70s by Italian director Sergio Leone.
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Ariaz earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Kansas City Art Institute and a Master of Fine Arts at State University of New York at Buffalo. This conversation took place at the gallery.
Q: Who is the audience for these modern-day re-enactments of Native American scenes in Germany?
A: Primarily Germans. The shows play at permanent, year-round stage sets across Germany. A lot of times there is an attached American-style frontier town where you can go to a saloon and get a hamburger. The bigger theaters hold up to 6,000 people.
All the shows I visited were full, and it was all Germans. So it’s a perspective on how Germans were viewing America at the time of the Old West. I was interested in how that time in our history was being reimagined and performed and really sold to an audience. It’s a tradition that has gone on for over 100 years.
Q: What did you learn about the origin of the shows?
A: Buffalo Bill had taken his “Wild West Show” to Europe, performing for Queen Victoria of England, for the pope (Leo XIII) and across Europe. He performed in Dresden, near where a young German writer named Karl May was living.
Karl May purportedly saw Buffalo Bill’s show and thereafter adopted that persona. He took on that whole identity for himself, complete with the buckskin jacket, the wide-brimmed hat, the handlebar mustache. He wrote a whole series of books in which he positioned himself as the protagonist having these adventures in the American West. The books were immensely popular with children, and they remain popular today with Germans. From these stories were adapted these theatrical performances.
Q: As a photographer, what interested you the most about the shows?
A: I got really interested in the whole subculture. There are actors known in Germany for playing these roles.
Q: How are cowboys and Indians portrayed in Germany?
A: The Indians were the favored characters in the stories. They are the ones that are the most romanticized. The cowboys are more seen as a sort of corrupting force, really the villains in the stories.
To see that cultural switch compared to the way a lot of those stories are told in our history was fascinating. You might see a lot of kids here in America, for instance, dress up as cowboys and cowgirls, and there it’s Indians. Before one performance, kids were getting their faces painted up.
Q: In the Spain series, the resemblance of some of the landscapes in the Tabernas Desert to the U.S. West is striking.
A: Yes, and I mixed in some photographs of the contemporary landscape of people living in that desert today, and the culmination of that work is a series of photographs where it is difficult to tell what would be pulled from the film set, raising the question: What is the fictionalized Western and what is the real live West?
Q: Are there performances at the old movie sets in Spain?
A: There are three cinema studios that still exist there. Two look like they’ve been out of commission a long time. They were the ones I was most drawn to aesthetically. The other one had a little zoo attached and so they were bringing in tourists however they could. They did little 15-minute street shows twice a day, and tourists came. They were all Europeans.
It brought home how much interest there still is in the American West and how it is romanticized not only here but abroad. I think that myth of the American West still very much informs how foreigners think about America.
Q: What did you learn doing this project that you weren’t expecting?
A: I find it complicated that there are these different cultures representing Native Americans. Frankly I find it a little troubling. The photographs are not a celebration of this phenomena but a witness to it.
There is also a political component that maybe is unraveling too much for this conversation.
Q: What is it?
A: Sometimes politicians evoke the language and the imagery of the Old West and adopt this kind of “you’re with us or against us” swagger, and I think that can be a dangerous position to take.
One thing I hope an audience would draw from this is, if they’re first drawn into the photographs by seeing something that they recognize, that they think is authentic, and then realize upon closer inspection that it is not real, that when they see modern-day actors on the political stage adopt this language of mythologized cowboys that they may begin to think, “Maybe that’s an act as well.”