Modern art museums rarely showcase the works of Indigenous artists, especially in ways that do not infantilize and dominate Native voices. The upcoming Palmer Gallery exhibit “Imagining Indigenous Futures,” which will run from Thursday, Nov. 29, to Dec. 20, seeks to rethink these exclusionary practices through its unique display of contemporary Native American art from the Edward J. Guarino collection. “Imaging Indigenous Futures” is the culmination of the American Studies class “Decolonizing the Exhibition,” taught by Associate Professor of English and Native American Studies Molly McGlennen. The course studies the significance and impact of Indigenous art through a Native American Studies perspective, and explores decolonizing approaches to the research and exhibition of such works.
The exhibition will commence with an opening event and reception on Nov. 29. At 5:30 p.m., a panel discussion featuring four speakers with distinct perspectives on contemporary Indigenous art will take place in the Villard Room. The panelists include McGlennen and Guarino, as well as Eugene Lopez-Huerta ’20, a “Decolonizing the Exhibition” student; and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a revered Salish and Kootenai visual artist. A reception will follow the panel at 6:30 p.m, during which visitors will have access to the exhibition for the first time.
This semester is the second time that McGlennen has offered the “Decolonizing the Exhibition” course. In 2013, the students researched Inuit art on paper; this time, the class is studying 31 works from 18 different contemporary Native artists. McGlennen articulated the purpose of the course: “‘[D]ecolonizing the Exhibition’ examines theories of decolonization, what indigenous visualities and visual culture are, as well as what new indigenous museology has brought into the conversation— how Native peoples through their art have been challenging the traditions of ethnographic representation.”
The class ultimately confronts the Eurocentric ways of studying art taught in conventional art history classes, which often trivialize the contributions of Native artists. McGlennen described how her course resists this oversight: “[F]or so long Indigenous peoples’ works have been sort of relegated to the side and marginalized from the traditional canonical ‘art history’—or, more often, they’re seen as ‘objects’ that aren’t attached to people as artists, but they might just have a tribal affiliation, if even that. So, often they’re rendered as ‘crafts,’ but not real art. And we really challenge those pretty strong assumptions about Native peoples.”
“Decolonizing the Exhibition” students were responsible for producing the wall labels for the works, a task which, considering the overwhelmingly non-Native population of the class, McGlennen described as difficult to navigate. “We try to measure the extent to which we can engage with decolonizing work,” she explained. “In our research … we foreground Native voices. So no non-Natives sources in our research—all Native voices, all Native scholars, all Native intellectuals, and all Native artists … And every wall label is preceded by a quote from the artists themselves, so that their voices come first, and then it’s our interpretations after that. So, we’re trying to challenge some common ways that you might experience a museum gallery space.”
Lopez-Huerta found the process of writing the wall labels to be daunting. “I think my classmates and I were overwhelmed with how to even begin conveying our artists’ messages. Each piece is grappling with so many different concepts that we discuss in Native American Studies: Indigenous sovereignty, colonial moves to innocence and tribal specificity, to name a few,” he stated. “We are familiar with these ideas, but each of us has to write for visitors who probably won’t be as knowledgeable. So we as a class must communicate as much as we can with as few words as possible and, of course, challenge visitors to look deeper into every piece.”
Prioritizing Native voices and perspectives in wall labels is just one way in which “Imagining Indigenous Futures” is defying the norms of museum spaces. Guarino, who has collected over 1,000 pieces of Indigenous artwork, asserted that the mere act of showcasing contemporary Native artists is progressive. “I think it’s really important for the work of Native American artists to be exhibited, and I advocate for that because, by and large, it’s overlooked. If you go into most of the major museums in the New York area, their work is not on exhibit,” he explained. “People come away with the impression that Native American art ended in the mid-20th century. They have no idea of all of this incredible creativity that’s going on right now. Part of it may be that most Native American artists don’t have gallery representation.”
A major component of “Decolonizing the Exhibition” is the consideration of how Westerners can engage with and support Native peoples in a respectful manner. The “Imagining Indigenous Futures” exhibit creates a moment for non-Native peoples to present themselves as allies. Lopez-Huerta asked: “Indigenous Futures must center Indigenous imaginations, so how can colonial peoples support them? For one, they must choose to actively listen and learn—the opening of this exhibition is a great opportunity for everyone to do that.”
McGlennen echoed this sentiment. “It’s not very often that Vassar has Indigenous peoples come to this campus,” she commented. “Every time I do one of these types of events…I try to recognize and foreground the fact that you’re actually doing something really positive by just attending these things and talking to people about it, because it sustains a conversation that needs to be sustained … It makes a statement, in that it brings visibility to something that is otherwise ignored or forgotten.”
The curators of “Imagining Indigenous Futures” sought to feature eclectic and provocative pieces from a variety of Native American perspectives. McGlennen explained how she chose these cutting-edge artists: “We really thought these 31 works exemplified the most exciting, subversive, imaginative, edgy works there are out there today,” she stated. “People—a lot of young artists in their 20s and 30s—that are really imagining what it really means for Native peoples not only to have survived 500 years of conquests, but to now to thrive and imagine their futures through their relationship to being occupied peoples … I think people will really love it.”
Those who wish to learn more about the exhibit can visit the website sites.google. com/vassar.edu/indigenousfutures, which accompanies the exhibition with reproductions of the wall panels, artist biographies and opportunities for further research into Indigenous art.