In Their Own Image: Inuit Art at Vassar Focuses on the Indigenous Experience
By Robert Burke Warren
In recent years, the “official” history of indigenous North Americans – as told from European perspectives – has fallen under increased scrutiny. Potent critiques of the “textbook take” are increasingly common, and slowly but surely, the narrative is changing; the term “Native American” has displaced “Indian,” Christopher Columbus is losing credibility, the 1990 NAGPRA Act provides Federal protection of tribal property and historic sites, and contemporary indigenous art is gaining respect. Vassar’s own indefatigable Professor Molly McGlennen, a member of the Anishinaabe tribe, is part of this shift. McGlennen, with degrees in English and Philosophy, and a PhD in Native American Studies, is deeply committed to broadening students’ perspectives via her class, “Decolonizing the Exhibition: Critical Approaches to Contemporary Indigenous Art.” In a unique move, the class culminates in an exhibit curated by those students: Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings From the Edward J. Guarino Collection. The exhibit features eight Inuit works on paper, displayed in the Focus Gallery at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center from December 4th to February 2nd.
Upon meeting her students last September, McGlennen wasn’t surprised at how little they’d learned about the indigenous experience in high school. “Students come in and feel they’ve been lied to or cheated,” she says. “They just know Pocahontas and the first Thanksgiving, that’s all their history books have told them. They wonder why there’s such an absence of Native American resistance in their texts. It’s a fascinating history. You might hear about the 19th century Plains Indian Wars, you might read about the supposed demise of the Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century, but where are they now? Students are hungry for these stories, even if they don’t know it.”
Prior to this class, McGlennen began her time at Vassar as the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Native American Studies, teaching the first Native American Studies course at the college. Soon after her arrival, she met art collector Edward J. Guarino. “Every year, he’d come to my class and bring these incredible pieces,” she says. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do an art class coming out of Native American Studies instead of the art department?’” It was important to educate the students about what a Native American Studies perspective is, as opposed to an art history perspective; it was important to have contemporary pieces to work against the prevailing stereotype about Native people being extinct; and it was important to be tribally specific, focusing on the Inuit, because that works against the notion that all native people are the same, that there’s this one monolithic group. [The Inuit, for example, were one of many tribes lumped under the term “Eskimo.”] There are over a thousand tribes in North America alone.
McGlennen also wants to dispel the notion of the indigenous experience being one primarily of “bygone days.” “Students think, ‘You teach native studies, you must be a historian,’” she says. “They’ll assume I’m only going to be talking about history, or my class will be about chronicling the wars, the great war heroes. But my primary area of expertise is contemporary literary and visual culture.”
Guarino, a champion of indigenous art, points out that the Surrealists, particularly Andre Breton, took much inspiration from Inuit art. “The Surrealists were fascinated by the multiple perspectives, distortions, emotional intensity, and seeming spontaneity of Inuit art,” he writes. “The Inuit world was filled with spirits and transformations that, to the Surrealists, corresponded with their desire to portray the dream world of the human subconscious. However, in the U.S., only a small number of discerning collectors and curators have had the foresight to champion Inuit art for what it is: contemporary art.”
“We try to privilege the Native perspective and voice,” says McGlennen. “In researching the pieces, contextualizing them, everything we read is written by Native Americans – scholars, theorists, artists. The students learn more broadly what’s happening in the Native American art world: who the artists are, what the pieces are about, what they’re trying to do, whom they’re speaking for or to.”
The exhibit features several mediums, including (pictured from top to bottom) Kenojuak Ashevak’s stonecut-on-paper “Animals Out of Darkness,” Jamasie Pitseolak’s dry-point etching “The Student,” Pitaloosie Saila’s lithograph “Strange Ladies,” and Annie Pootoogook’s collagraph “Pitseolak’s Glasses.” All artists rose from Inuit communities in the Arctic regions of Canada, some from dire circumstances, and most are still active and achieving renown. The works, by turns harrowing, gentle, and dreamlike, offer a glimpse into the process by which indigenous people express their continued resistance to one culture – the colonists’ – while enriching their own. Accompanying each piece is a wall label with a quote from the artist, which sets the context off, plus an overview by the students who chose the work.
The stories of the indigenous peoples of North America are fraught and complex, but Decolonizing the Exhibition shows they are also ever-changing, inspiring, and very much alive and well.
Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings From the Edward J. Guarino Collection
December 4th, 2013 to February 2nd, 2014
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
124 Raymond Avenue