23 January 2011

Wheel: Alfred Young Man

Segregation of Native Art by Ethnicity: Is It Self-imposed or Superimposed?
Alfred Young Man (Cree)
Note: This is my summary of Alfred Young Man's essay

With 2,000 art spaces in Canada and 17,500 art spaces in the United States, Dr. Alfred Young Man wonders why so little space is available to exhibit indigenous art. Most of the art spaces are controlled by non-Natives and all too often by “people who often know little to nothing about Native Americans and First Nation peoples” (79). When Native art does get shown, it's often shown separately from other art forms.

Anthropological Classification
Canadian Museum of Civilization
Even today, Native art is typically shown in anthropological or natural history museums, and is still sometimes labeled “primitive art” instead of “art written large” (81). This stems from the colonial ideology upon which Canadian museums were founded. “Part of the problem with answering the question about the segregation of Native art can be laid squarely at the feet of anthropology,” Young Man writes (86).

Anthropological institutions such as the Canadian Museum of Civilization depend upon Victorian classification systems (96). Young Man says the question of inclusion would have been settled by now if it pertained to any other group and blames the extraordinary persistence of the problem on “institutional racism” (96). He points out that Vine Deloria, Jr. was concerned that “the parochial nature of Western scientific thought” (98) would become integral to Native peoples’ own perceptions of themselves.

Young Man suggests that many non-native art professionals would prefer the question of “Native art writ large” to simply disappear, in part because they refuse to learn anything about Native art history. A compromise strategy currently used by museums is to present Native art as part of the Post-Modern mainstream without any cultural context (97).

Anthropology was instrumental in creating Modernism, as Young Man explains. The Victorian era spawned both ethnography and Modern art. In 1894, Otis T. Mason, an anthropologist, created the notion of the “cultural status” of human societies, designated by their tools, which would place them in the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, or Atomic Age. This gave birth to an idea of societies progressing along a set line — an idea long since abandoned by the academic world but unfortunately very much alive in popular culture. With the minimal use of metallurgy, especially for tools, pre-Columbian cultures were categorized as being “Stone Age” (97), despite their superior developments in other areas such as medicine, hygiene, and agriculture.

National Gallery of Canada

Only in 1987 did the National Gallery of Canada begin seriously collecting Native art. When the museum moved into a new venue in 1989, it showcased its fledgling contemporary Native art collection together in one space. Native artists complained about this segregation, or “ghettoization”—saying the museum created an art “rez.” In response to artists’ complaints the museum dispersed the collection throughout its displays with no tribal affiliation listed on the pieces’ labels. “Assimilation by any other name,” writes Young Man, who saw this move as a denial of Native art history (82). This disassociation is damaging because so little has been written about many of these First Nations artists that the average view while have no context in which to place their work. By showing Native work together, a Native art history can begin to emerge (85).

Solo exhibits of First Nations artists, such as Daphne Odjig (Odawa) and Norval Morrisseau (Ojibwa), at the National Gallery are positive new developments (101) but no other plans for more such exhibits existed at time of writing. [Note: As Greg Hill has pointed out in his comment below, much has changed since [Re]inventing the Wheel was published. Hill (Kanyen'kehaka-Mohawk) was appointed Curator and head of the department of Indigenous Art at the CNG in 2007, has actively acquired aboriginal art for the permanent collection, curated a traveling solo retrospective of Carl Beam (Ojibwe), and created other aboriginal art shows.]

The Question of Positioning

National Gallery of Canada curator Diana Nemiroff writes that the issue of where to positioning Native art has reemerged on and off since 1927, inspired by the series of exhibitions throughout the 1910s and 1920s displaying non-Western art alongside Modern Western art. In 1978, the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation sponsored the first national Canadian gathering of indigenous artists and other art professionals, who debated the question of positioning for three straight days. Young Man described a dizzying list of symposia and articles discussing positioning of Native art, all of which were influenced by anthropology and ignored the possibility of Native art history. “Ironically,” Young Man observes, “the gridlock that Native art is experiencing today should not have to happen to what are arguably the most studied people on the planet…” (86).


Young Man describes the trend of artists having to hide their ethnic roots to create “art for art’s sake” and be seen as an isolated individual. The curator’s policy at the National Galley appears to be, “if you are an Indian who insists on working as the Native artist you are, well, you need not apply for the gig” (85).

All art is ultimately ethnic and influenced by the culture in which it was created. Picasso did not have to surrender his Spanish identity. No art is universal. Ironically in other countries, mainstream Canadian artists are looked at as being “Canadian” instead of universal, and Canadian art history as a whole is ignored (93).

It is good to bear in mind the incredible diversity of perspectives and cultures of Aboriginal artists of Canada. Inuit peoples are not Indian, and their arts are accordingly unique.


Young Man writes, “it will take a great change of consciousness before this question of Native art writ large is going to be able to make that fundamental metamorphosis from one paradigm to another…,” and Native peoples will have to initiate this evolution (95). Western art writers won’t initiate these changes, and really how can they be expected to understand the motivations and meanings of Native art without guidance from the Native art community?

“We need … to do away with the term traditional altogether,” writes Young Man, “for by one account we are the traditional” (96). He encourages Natives to coin new art terms and to do away altogether with the anthropological approach to classifying Native art. “[T]he politically and historically autonomous Native artist and Native art historian, critic, scholar, and academic need to be publicly acknowledged and respected…” (101).

With so many art spaces not showcasing Native arts, organizations such as the Canadian Museums Association, Canada Council for the Arts should take a leadership position to place Native arts on equal footing as non-Native Canadian art and end tokenism. Today, a Native artist should not be seen through the lens of anthropology or as a “Western art hybrid” (102). While anthropologists have rejected the idea of “primitive” and “civilized,” the art world must also do so (103).

Images reproduced from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons attribution license.


gahill said...

Hello America,
My name is Greg Hill and I am the curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). While I applaud your efforts to provide a view of the situation for Aboriginal art in Canada as it is presented by the NGC (and CMC) it has to be noted that there are serious errors in your critique.
First, the overall tone is outdated and does not reflect a the great deal of change that has occurred at the NGC in the last several years. This is likely due to your apparent dependence on a single source for your information. If you had of checked even one of the claims such as "there are no plans for future shows of Native art" you would have realized that only 6 days before you published this a major solo exhibition for Carl Beam (Anishinaabe) came to an end. The Carl Beam show is going on to tour across Canada and even to the NMAI in New York (check it out!). There have been several other exhibitions and there will continue to be many more...
In fact, get in touch with me anytime and I'll fill you in on the goings on.

ahalenia said...

Hello Greg,

Thank you so much for your response. In that post, I wasn't offering my analysis; I was attempting to summarize Alfred Young Man's essay. You are correct about the information being somewhat dated because [Re]inventing the Wheel: Advancing the Dialogue on Contemporary American Indian Art was published in 2008, but I feel the book is still a good springboard for discussion. That's excellent news about the Carl Beam show traveling. I'm hoping to see the National Gallery of Canada for myself this fall and look forward to future aboriginal shows there. Best,

ahalenia said...

Following up, on what is going on at the NGC, the show Sanaugavut: Inuit Art from the Canadian Arctic just traveled to the National Museum in New Dehli.

Ulluriat is a virtual art show of 28 works from the NGC's Inuit Art Collection.

Art of this Land is a virtual art show of "the new installation of Aboriginal art with the Gallery's permanent collection of Canadian art" including art from the six cultural regions of Canada.

Anonymous said...

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Young Man said...

Good day,

Greg Hill's comment is taken for what it is and thank you for the update Mr. Hill. However, you neglect to mention what is right about that orignal article, namely that Native art history is still unrecognized by world class institutions such as the NGC and you acknowledged as much in a conversation you had with me some years ago whereas you said that such recognition was unnecessary, a remark by the way that I found nothing short of incredulous coming as it did from someone who holds such an important position as yours. Would you not call that a serious "error", far more grave than the one you say I made in my essay?

Your comment comes well after the fact, which America wisely pointed out in her reply, when the exhibitions you mention were not even dreamt of, never mind planned, to my knowledge and I did check with those who would know. It is nice knowing that other exhibitions of Native artists are planned but that falls far short of admitting to the reality of there being a Native art history and having the NGC change their policy to act accordingly.

The issue regarding the "error" of the lack of recognition of Native art history is at the center of my argument in (Re) Inventing...such an argument needs no apology. Sadly and unfortunately that problem persists. This goes to the heart of the question of the sovereignty of Native American peoples and their history in North America.

Meanwhile the real issue remains, namely when will institutions such as the NGC decide to accept the reality of Native art history and do something about it? Don't tell me that they have made that change behind the scenes since we last spoke either because I would wager that such an act is not possible. Indeed, how could it be when at this point in time there is no such thing as a seriously written Native perspective history on Native art to be found anywhere whether in Canada, the USA or Europe. I might be wrong but I believe that Native American art scholars who are First Nations or Native American are the only professional researchers and writers who can get that history correct and that includes the Native art theory. I mean, nobody, including God, changes the negative body politics of countries like Canada or the USA at the drop of a hat.

aboriginally yours,

Alfred Young Man, Ph.D.

ahalenia said...

Thank you for responding, Dr. Young Man. In articulating indigenous American history from an indigenous American perspective, do you think the next step is publishing? I have heard that Jolene Rickard is planning a scholarly journal on indigenous art. My tribe recently published their own book about their own art history, which I would love to see every tribe be able to do.

Even if they are smaller or lacking in financial resources, indigenous controlled institutions must lead the way. I can't imagine how non-indigenous institutions could possibly do so.

Young Man said...

Thank you America, as you may guess, I am not often on your blog, however I appreciate your response. Of course, we Native people must research, write and publish our own histories and I believe you are correct, non-Natives cannot do this therefore the NGC and other museums lack a certain knowledge, expertise, and professionalism in this area. They can no more write your own people's history for you than I can, and I would not pretend that I could.

"Conquerers" are known to write their own history and we Native Americans/First Nations are perceived as a "conquered" people by them, rightly or wrongly therefore it stands to reason that the "conquerers" perceive no history or reality amongst us to write about. As Miles Davis, the great jazz musician once quipped, "Hell, if you understood everything I said, you'd be me!" And so it goes, I believe that only Native people can understand and correctly write down our own history - if we leave it up to non-Natives to research, write, and publish that history we'll be disatisfied with the terrible results every time.

And no, I have not heard about Jolene's effort at a journal, please tell your readers more about that.

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