Indigenous summer: Decolonial perspectives on display in Europe


OCAD University’s Gerald McMaster, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Visual Culture and Curatorial Practice, spent several weeks this past summer in Europe touring galleries, museums and exhibitions. Two of the principal shows he attended were Documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany, and the Biennale in Venice, Italy.

InStudio recently caught up with McMaster — he’s a very mobile, rapidly moving man! — to get a glimpse of what he saw. In particular, we wanted to find out more about how Indigenous artists are being represented on the world stage today.

InStudio: Gerald, what drew you to Documenta 14 in Kassel and the Biennale di Venezia? What did you hope to encounter at those exhibitions?

McMaster: Once every 10 years three major European art exhibitions coincide: Documenta (in Kassel and Athens), the Biennale and the Sculpture Project Munster. The next time all three will run concurrently is in 2027. By then, I’ll probably… Well, let’s just say I’ll be there!

But back to your question. I already had planned to participate in a conference in London and to visit Amsterdam and Rome, when Art in America asked me to write a piece on Documenta 14 and the Biennale [Ed note: McMaster’s essay “Under Indigenous Eyes” appears in the October 2017 print edition]. The journal wanted me to pay particular attention to the growing Indigenous presence in the visual arts (to be fair, there were more works in those shows than what appears in my essay, but the editors hold the final scissors). Of the two exhibitions, Documenta by far had the greatest representation of Indigenous artists. In Venice, there were some in the main presentation, while countries such as Australia and New Zealand were themselves represented this year by Indigenous artists, both of whom turned to cinema for their medium. In the New Zealand pavilion, for instance, Lisa Reihana appropriated French Neoclassical visual tropes to query European colonialism in the South Pacific in her massive video panorama in Pursuit of Venus.

For me as a scholar, the motivation to attend these exhibitions also involved exploring the abilities of the curator to understand and articulate the growing decolonial phenomenon. Across the visual culture spectrum this is becoming an important discursive act that is actually resulting in good art being produced.

Lisa Reihana, New Zealand Pavilion, Venice Biennale July 2017

InStudio: Speaking of your scholarship, one of the thrusts of your current research is on how Indigenous artists — past and present — "reverse the gaze." Would you briefly explain that concept? Did you see evidence of it in Kassel and Venice this summer?

McMaster: My interest in this concept stems from a desire to give voice to a particular way of seeing. This line of inquiry began for me many years ago after reading theorists such as Jacques Lacan and Kaja Silverman, especially their ideas of the “screen” — the concept that our perceptions or subjectivity are mediated by the things we see and experience. In other words, culture acts as a screen through which we see and interpret the world.

So, for example, if you’re projected or represented negatively you’re going to perceive yourself as less than or inferior. For Indigenous peoples, the barrage of one-dimensional, often demonizing images in art and popular culture led many of us to believe in these stereotypes.

But now things are changing. In Kassel and Venice I saw exciting evidence of how Indigenous artists around the world are reversing the gaze. Contemporary art has become universalized to the degree that mainstream artists from Europe or parts of North America no longer hold absolute sway. The works of Indigenous artists from many parts of the world are being taken seriously and not just derisively categorized — or criticized — as anthropological specimens. Their presence at these major European exhibitions suggested to me a particular kind of voice that was being heard. At the Arsenale in Venice, for instance, drawings by the late Cape Dorset artist Kananginak Pootoogook complicated the self-decolonization narrative in inspiring ways. Equally fascinating was the way some non-Indigenous artists held up mirrors of their own to reflect — sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much — on the dominance of Western views of the Other.

Kananginak Pootoogook, Venice Biennale July 2017

InStudio: Many Indigenous artists today are concerned with the expression and mediation of “traditional knowledge.” Could you elaborate on this issue? What’s motivating it? Did it feature in works you saw at Documenta 14 and the Biennale?

McMaster: There is a problem with trying to understand how traditional knowledge operates at the level of art. First of all, it doesn’t fit the usual parameters of how art is viewed. For that reason, art that’s informed by traditional knowledge has often been slotted under “ethnology.”

Recently, however, the growing interest in materiality has led many artists to conduct research into old (and, often, new) techniques and practices. For example, one artist from Mali — Aboubakar Fofana — whose work I encountered this summer at Kassel, has been researching indigo. While learning about its botanical properties, he’s also creating works of art. I also was drawn to works by Abel Rodríquez Muinane, a Nonuya artist from the Cahuinarí region of Colombia, who uses non-Indigenous materials (paper, pencil, and watercolours) to draw not just the flora and fauna of his native Amazon. In immense detail, he also identifies their source, their medicinal power, their relation to Indigenous cultures, and so on. Such traditional knowledge had both visual and intellectual power. From closer to home, the late Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick showed Documenta visitors the masks he made as well as how his community used them. Dick, whose masks travelled from Vancouver Island to Germany in a ceremonial procession, revealed the power Northwest Coast masks have in both ritual and artistic contexts, and that sometimes the two can overlap without subverting each other.

Beau Dick, Kassel, Documenta July 2017

InStudio: One of the themes of your research is “global Indigeneity” within the contemporary art world. What are the major facets of that movement?

McMaster: First of all, global indigeneity is a movement to counter colonization. In the contemporary context, this may involve responding to homogeneity and erasure, two of the hallmarks of modernity and globalism. And, despite the adjective “global,” it entails a deep awareness of and respect for the local, however that may be articulated.

Global indigeneity is also concerned with the contact zones of cultural practices. In the vast networking of exhibitions such as Venice and Kassel, this idea suggests mutual respect and understanding, the celebration of difference. This idea might, in fact, not be an artistic practice so much as it is a curatorial endeavour. Artists are more apt to consider ideas such as agency and self-representations. Curators, on the other hand, are in positions to weave critical dialogues on such topics.

InStudio: If you could choose one piece you saw in Kassel or Venice that struck a particularly resonant chord inside you, what would it be and why?

McMaster: I would say the young Sami artist Máret Ánn Sara’s stunning work Pile o’ Sàpmi, which I witnessed at Kassel. It’s actually a work in various forms that were scattered in two large spaces within the same building. The first encounter is of a giant curtain of reindeer skulls subtly dyed and hung to resemble the Sami flag. Talk about a reverse gaze as the skulls peer down at the visitor! Sara’s work addresses issues of colonial rule and the enforcement of reindeer herding that is totally at odds with Sami practices, and its politics become supercharged in a venue that probably knows or cares little about such local concerns.

But it was Sara’s surprising North American reference that truly riveted my attention: in another part of the building she showed two back-lit photographs, one of a pile of severed reindeer heads and another of the (in)famous photograph from western Canada showing a mountain of buffalo skulls. This latter image has become a symbol of the wanton colonialist disregard for an entire species as well as for the Indigenous peoples of the prairies who relied on this animal for their very existence. Through Sara’s art, it was both deeply moving and troubling to witness this tragic trans-cultural history repeating itself.

Maret Ann Sara, Kassel, Documenta, July 2017

InStudio correspondent Morgan Holmes is a writer and editor based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His main areas of expertise are post-secondary education, the arts, and health care. When he's not wrangling words, Morgan enjoys making a racket on the Great Highland bagpipes.

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