Many scholars believe that Native American culture currently finds itself in a troubling situation: too many people think of it only in the past tense. Vassar’s new course Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection seeks to rectify this.
The course will culminate in an exhibition preceded by a panel presentation in Taylor Hall 102 from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. today. The reception will be open until 9 p.m. in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, and the exhibition will be on view through Feb. 2, 2014.
“One of the stereotypes is that all Native people are dead—that they no longer exist,” said Assistant Professor of English and Native American Studies Molly McGlennen, who teaches the course. Therefore, in an effort to deconstruct this stereotype, the exhibition focuses mainly on contemporary art.
“When many people think about Indigenous art, they imagine displays of artifacts in cabinets of antiquated curiosities,” wrote Logan Woodruff ’14, a student of McGlennen’s class, in an emailed statement. “Far too many museums and institutions present Native Peoples as absent, conquered and historicized within a dominant narrative. This colonial museology fails to acknowledge the contemporary existence of Indigenous Peoples and the dynamic and sophisticated ways in which contemporary Indigenous artists are unsettling this narrative.”
Similarly, Kristina Arike ’14 wrote in an emailed statement, “Few exhibitions celebrate thriving, contemporary Native art the way that [Decolonizing the Exhibition] does. I hope that audiences leave this exhibit with a heightened interest and awareness of the work being done by Native artists, as well as a more critical lens with which to evaluate what they see in natural history museums that continue to pervade the colonial agenda.” Before viewing the pieces, the exhibition visitors will be informed by a panel. Decolonizing the Exhibition: Four Perspectives on Indigenous Visual Culture in the Museum Space will feature Chitimacha/Choctaw artist Sarah Sense, art collector and donor Guarino, art history major and Native studies correlate Pilar Jefferson ’15 and McGlennen herself.
The panel is a discussion of the traditional interpretations of Native American art as well as an exchange of perspectives. “[Guarino’s] perspective on collecting and donating is quite different than my perspective as an academic…who studies these pieces to understand more about Native visual culture,” she said. The student-curated exhibit will display eight Inuit prints and drawings. “How [the Inuit] started printmaking was from these art cooperatives created by the Canadian government in the 1950s,” McGlennen said “So that, in and of itself, is a relationship that can be vexing.”
“Citing that historical relationship…is something we’re really interested in in the class,” she continued. “And while we’ll have the wall labels for the pieces in the exhibit itself in the Loeb, we’re also going to have a website that will show more pieces with extended virtual wall labels. It’ll give a sort of fuller story to what we can’t necessarily have room for in the Loeb.”
To highlight the fuller story, the course title is a play on words. “We do hope to unsettle the exhibition, meaning…that non-Native peoples [have] a perception of what Indians should look like, what their art should be–symbols and signs that quintessentially identify Indianness for Americans,” said McGlennen. “In that way, there is…this idea of tourism or [exhibitionism] that Americans perceive that they have access to [and] have complete knowledge about.”
In order to more critically analyze Native art and the way it is understood, the 15 students of Decolonizing the Exhibition have been researching and creating wall labels for the exhibited pieces. McGlennen said, “I was giving them constant encouragement to find out more, to say it better, to think critically about: ‘Is this coming from an outsider’s perspective, or is this coming, do you think, from an Inuit perspective?’ So we really had to think hard about what…it [means], then, to say that we’re attempting to create a Native American studies perspective when you yourself are not Native.”
McGlennen continued, “I think of contemporary art as a continuation of Native storytelling, and I think that the image—visual culture—is so powerful because it seeps into so many areas of our life…So just think of that kind of symbol of an Indian again, that someone who thinks they understand Indianness in these really reduced symbols—the visual culture produced by these Native people speaks right back to that and right through it. It breaks it down. This visual culture is, in a way, Native people telling their own stories in their own terms.”
Reflecting on this visual culture, Woodruff wrote, “The prints and drawings in the exhibition are extraordinary. Each time I return to one of the works I see something that I had missed before; they grow more and more complex and magnetic. Everything that I thought I understood about the work is unsettled by each new discovery.”