Vassar Today

New Course Takes Critical Approach to Contemporary Indigenous Art

By Larry Hertz
<em>Animals out of Darkness</em>, 1961, Kenojuak Ashevak and Johnniebo Ashevak <em>Arctic Landscape</em>, 1999, Janet Kigusiuq <em>Composition (People, Animals, and the World Holding Hands)</em>, 2007-8, Shuvinai Ashoona <em>Kitchecut</em>, 2000, William Noah <em>35/36</em>, 2006, Annie Pootoogook <em>Male Fish Gut</em>, 2006, Siassie Kenneally <em>Pitseolak’s Glasses</em>, 2006, Annie Pootoogook <em>Quilt of Dreams</em>, 2009, Shuvinai Ashoona <em>Strange Ladies</em>, 2006, Pitaloosie Saila <em>Aujaqsiut Tupiq (Summer Tent)</em>, 2009, Shuvinai Ashoona <em>The Day After</em>, 2010, Jamasie Pitseolak <em>The Student</em>, 2010, Jamasie Pitseolak <em>Two Seasons</em>, 2008, Itee Pootoogook <em>Wild World</em>, 2008, Kavavaow Mannomee <em>Untitled (Successful Walrus Hunt)</em>, 2009, Kananginak Pootoogook

Assistant Professor of English and Native American Studies Molly McGlennen contends that too often, and for far too long, Native American artists have been largely ignored or trivialized by museums and art historians. She notes that often, if their work is acknowledged at all, it is understood as ethnological “trinkets” or archaeological “curios” and not as the dynamic bodies of art created by Native American artists.

McGlennen is hoping the course “Decolonizing the Exhibition: Critical Approaches to Contemporary Indigenous Art,” which she designed and offered for the first time this fall, will help to change this perception.

“Museums have marginalized Native American artists, often lumping them all together as ‘Indians’ rather than artists from particular tribal nations with specific worldviews, homelands, and relationships to colonialism,” McGlennen says. “This class confronts those stereotypes and myths, and explores how they came about.”

McGlennen, who helped to design Vassar’s correlate in Native American studies, says the new course “differs significantly from most art history classes. Our class looks at the artwork through a Native American studies perspective. It’s about indigenous peoples’ relationships with museums and the broader art world.”

To acquaint the 15 students in the class with contemporary Native American artists, McGlennen assigned each of them a specific drawing or print and had them write labels for the piece both for the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center exhibition “Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection,” and for an accompanying “virtual” exhibit online.

The works on display included pieces donated to the college by Guarino, a retired public school teacher from nearby Westchester County who has collected more than 1,000 paintings, drawings, pottery, and other artwork created by Native American artists.

Guarino said he chose Vassar as the recipient of his gifts because he knew the collection, housed in a teaching museum, would be used to enlighten students about the neglect shown by many in the art world to these artists. “Native American art is often relegated to the back of museums; there’s a gaping hole in the story many museums are telling,” Guarino says.

Art history major Kristina Arike ’14 says she decided to enroll in McGlennen’s class after taking a course in early American art. “Native American art was only touched on briefly, and I wanted to learn more,” Arike says.

She says McGlennen gave the class a “crash course in Native American history to put some of the other things we’re learning in context.” Arike says she is planning a career in the art world when she graduates, “and this is an important component, learning how to break down a lot of the misconceptions about Native American art.”

McGlennen says one of the most common reactions she gets from her courses is, “Why haven’t I read this before in my history books?” She says that question leads us to ask, “What is one’s responsibility to this omission?”

Arike says the course has helped her gain a proper perspective on the significance of Native American art. “I’m learning a lot about sovereignty—politically and culturally,” she says. “By recognizing their art, and learning how important it is, Native peoples’ sovereignty becomes a real issue and not just a concept.”

—Larry Hertz