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.
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.