Art/Artifact?: Decolonizing Museum Exhibitions

Museum professionals often debate whether Native American art should be interpreted through an ethnographic or an art historical lens? But what if neither is sufficient, or appropriate?

The exhibition “Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection,” that was on show until February 2 of this year at Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, and now lives on online, attempts to re-frame the display and interpretation of the work of Native artists.

Part of a course taught by Native American Studies Professor Molly McGlennen, students were asked to remove their preconceived notions of indigenous art and view the work through a Native, rather than white, European, lens. As McGlennen puts it, “we have these expectations of what native people should be thinking about, should be rendering.” [1] The exhibition tries to challenge these expectations.

In her introduction to the online exhibition, McGlennen writes, “Historically, Indigenous art has been collected and exhibited in limiting ways by framing objects as nameless crafts or curios and by rendering Indigenous peoples and their histories through a romanticized and fated past. This exhibition is different.” [2]

This “different” exhibition was, in part, the vision of the works’ collector, Edward Guarino, who wanted to see “an exhibit where the art would not be presented through an ethnographic or anthropological lens, and where visitors would be guided to confront these artworks as contemporary works of art.” [3] The exhibition displayed eight works by Inuit artists from Cape Dorset and Baker Lake, in the Arctic regions of Canada.

And indeed, some of the pieces do not appear to hold any outward sign of “typical” Indigenous work. Take for instance, Annie Pootoogook’s work “35/36.” The image presented is a singular red bra, which, though rendered in an almost pop art style as the students’ label points out, tells an Inuit story. [4] Other pieces address political injustices, and are juxtaposed with more traditional work. Jamasie Pitseolak’s pair of abstracted etchings “The Student” and “The Day After” tell the artist’s story of abuse in the Canadian Indian Residential School System. [5]

Perhaps analyzing the work on purely aesthetic merit, however, is not the answer either. In creating the exhibition, students pushed beyond eliminating just ethnographic undertones by also shedding traditional art historical thought processes. “I was so stuck in that art-history brain,” student Pilar Jefferson said. ‘I learned that the relationship between Western people and native people and art and museums is all very, very complicated.” [6]

When neither Western academic contexts were adequate, it was self-determination that was allowed to rule. The label text for most pieces in the online exhibition begin with a quote from the Native artist who created it, and it is clear that students are familiar with the stories of each artist. Unlike the mostly anonymous Native American art chosen by white collectors for most museums in the past, for which the artist will never have the opportunity to speak about, voice, in this case, is returned to the artist. Other collectors have attempted to capture this Native Studies perspective to their interpretation of objects and collecting (check out the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris and The Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian to get a glimpse at other evolving approaches.)

If both ethnographic and art historical contexts are Euro-centric, perhaps this all inclusive, Native-centric framework is more appropriate. “Decolonizing the Exhibition” in many ways seems to be on the verge of just that. All artists, Indigenous or otherwise, strive to create objects that are beautiful, challenging, or both, and carry a mix of influences that cannot be labeled and confined to one box. Though interpreted by students and academics in this case, the input of the Native lens seems to suggest that rather than deciding for them, museums should allow Native Americans to determine for themselves how their work should be interpreted.

[1] Sylviane Gold, “Calling it Art, Not Native American Art: A Review of ‘Decolonizing the Exhibition’ at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie,” The New York Times, January 17, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/nyregion/a-review-of-decolonizing-the-exhibition-at-vassar-college-in-poughkeepsie.html?_r=1.

[2] Molly McGlennen, “Introduction,” Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection, accessed April 14, 2014, http://pages.vassar.edu/amst282/3536-2/.

[3] Gold, “Calling it Art, Not Native American Art.”

[4] Aaron Jones and Caroline Winkeller, “35/36,” Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection, accessed April 14, 2014, http://pages.vassar.edu/amst282/3536-2/.

[5] Maggie Lopez and Jesse Peters, “The Student,” and “The Day After,” Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection, accessed April 14, 2014, http://pages.vassar.edu/amst282/the-student/.

[6] Gold, “Calling it Art, Not Native American Art.”

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