Over the past six years, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center has been enhanced with a rich collection of Indigenous works donated by collector Edward J. Guarino. With his vast knowledge of the works and close relationships with the artists, Mr. Guarino has brought his expertise to Vassar College and contributed to the growth of its Native American Studies program. From this relationship, Assistant Professor of English and Native American Studies Molly McGlennen has developed the course “Decolonizing the Exhibition: Critical Approaches to Contemporary Indigenous Art,” which explores alternative approaches to the study and presentation of Indigenous art by utilizing a set of important contemporary Inuit works from Mr. Guarino’s collection. The course has culminated in this student-curated exhibition on view through February 2, 2014. However, we have created this “virtual exhibition” you are experiencing here now to complement and bring additional depth to the contextualization of these amazing Inuit works of art.
During the 1950s, Canadian artist, writer, and filmmaker James Houston developed an economically viable Inuit arts program, which became known as the West Baffin Island Co-operative and through which he introduced printmaking to Inuit peoples. Drawing on nineteenth century theories of cultural evolution, Houston formed his perspectives on Inuit peoples’ ability to create around a common Western anthropological assumption: “Primitive” peoples’ sharp awareness of their environment precluded them from functioning at a higher conceptual level. For Houston, art-making was not an intellectual activity for the Inuit but purely a natural and intuitive one.
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. Attentive to Indigenous peoples’ relationship to colonialism and tribal nations’ political sovereignty and autonomy, this exhibition renders Indigenous art not through western categories of artifact, but as autochthonous expressions stressing the continuance of Indigenous peoples’ worldviews in dialogue with the non-Indigenous world.
With Decolonizing the Exhibition, we aim to unsettle this enduring curatorial tradition by using the stories, writings, and theorization of Indigenous artists and scholars to contextualize the Inuit works of art. Using a Native American Studies approach, the exhibition foregrounds a particular group of North American Indigenous artists, specifically Inuit artists from Cape Dorset and Baker Lake (in Arctic regions of Canada), that share distinct languages, homelands, and worldviews, rather than homogenously exhibiting a cross-section of tribal groups through the lens of cultural stereotypes. In our contextualization, we also stress the history of Inuit art cooperatives as a key site of Inuit agency rather than a site of Euro-Canadian guardianship, as so many have narrated. Thus, we shape our reading of “decolonization” as Inuit people determining their own futures and not a colonial government or philanthropic interlocutors determining that for them.
Whether through unsettling the normative representations of Indigenous experience, resisting continued colonial intrusion, or negotiating the shared histories of Euro-Canadian presence, the Inuit artists in the exhibition demonstrate an extraordinary ability to adapt and thrive into the twenty-first century. Revealing a portion of one of the most prominent and daring collections of Indigenous art in the Northeast, Decolonizing the Exhibition offers the Vassar community, as well as the broader community of museum visitors, a unique opportunity to experience and think critically about Indigenous peoples and their art in the present tense.
Professor Molly McGlennen