Of Umbrella Terms and Definitions: Diversity Within a Framework?

Aurogeeta Das

Sakahàn is an ambitious exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), which opened on May 17 and closed on September 2, 2013, and was conceived of as the first of the NGC’s planned quinquennial surveys of international indigenous art. The scope of this article will not permit discussion of the artworks featured in the show, so I will instead attempt to assess and place Sakahàn within the narrative of exhibition histories.

Aurogeeta Das, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada.

In theory, a curatorial selection process for a themed exhibition might deliberate on what is to be included, but in practice, it often begins by determining what to exclude from within a broad framework. Sakahàn’s principal concept is the “indigenous”, a term that is most frequently understood to mean “original inhabitants native to a land”. Notwithstanding the fact that the non-indigenous are rarely identified as such, those excluded at Sakahàn were metropolitan artists of non-indigenous descent. Sakahàn also excludes rural and folk artists who in some instances may share enmeshed histories with indigenous artists, such as India’s Kalighat and Bengali patua (scroll) artists whose art shares a genealogy with that made by the indigenous Santal peoples. When an exhibition focuses on indigeneity1, the curatorial process is potentially contentious because it must necessarily negotiate issues of race, identity and tangled histories. Each presents its own conceptual challenges. These complexities multiply when the term “indigenous” applies to “art”, itself a much debated and progressively ambiguous term, referring to bewilderingly varied objects and practices that engage with distinct concepts and make use of wide-ranging media. Traditionally, the inclusion of indigenous cultural objects and practices within Establishment or White Cube museum and gallery spaces has been problematic because of the seemingly oppositional approaches of Western2 conceptions of art and aesthetics and the discipline of anthropology. The latter has traditionally found it easier to accord them value. Curators trained in the accepted methodologies of Western art history have for a long time found it difficult to incorporate into museum and gallery displays the very function for which indigenous material objects are often created. If the function was to be revealed through modes of display, “contemporary” art curators often worried about cultural objects being interpreted through an anthropological lens.3 Therefore, when two terms such as “indigenous” and “art” are brought together, one must question not only whether the above-mentioned dividing line has been successfully ruptured, but also consequently, whether or not the extraordinary breadth of objects and practices that may be included under their combined ambit justifies the use of these umbrella terms. As I do not examine Sakahàn’s artworks and modes of display here, I propose to tackle the latter question.

Aurogeeta Das, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada.

Sakahàn features over 150 artworks by more than eighty indigenous artists originally from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Finland, Greenland, Guatemala, India, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Taiwan and the United States. According to the NGC, it is “the largest ever global survey of contemporary indigenous art.” This is a claim that does not appear to be overly far-fetched but it nevertheless raises questions, particularly due to the use of the word “global”—a word that is much bandied about of late, being that it is divergently interpreted and that it continues to elicit mixed responses. Sakahàn may be critiqued for the omission of African and Middle Eastern indigenous artists: for example, the Berbers were not represented. The exception is Wangechi Mutu, a Kukuyu artist originally from Kenya, who lives and works in New York. One would hope that the next quinquennial will rectify such glaring omissions.4 However, Sakahàn curators Greg Hill, Christine Lalonde and Candice Hopkins self-reflexively apologise for having neglected Africa, clarifying that the first of the planned quinquennial shows could not possibly do justice to indigenous artists from all continents. The curatorial trio felt that a superficial inclusion would be disrespectful and that they would prefer to wait until they have developed the necessary knowledge and expertise required to select indigenous artists from regions they currently do not specialise in. Given Sakahàn’s not insignificant reliance on curatorial advisors from a number of countries, one may wonder why the same model could not be adopted for Africa. At any rate, this is perhaps why—despite the NGC’s claim—the curatorial trio refrained from using the word “global” in the exhibition title, instead choosing to qualify the term “indigenous” with “international”. As Errington has pointed out in her essay, “Gloablizing Art History”, terms like “worldwide”, “international” and “global” do not mean quite the same thing.5 While Errington poses pertinent queries with reference to “global” art history and art historians, similar questions may be asked within the specialised arena of curatorial practices in major museums.

The use of the word “global” in occidental museums increasingly appears to take into account the general perception that the prominent shows they have assembled thus far have had a primarily Euro-American focus. Undoubtedly, with changing and uncertain economies, such institutions are now under pressure to demonstrate a global relevance for their temporary exhibitions. Apart from the participation of artists originating from sixteen different nations, some Sakahàn artists may be called “global” citizens in that they have moved around and may be based in more than one major metropolis at the same time. Maria Thereza Alves, for example, is a Kaingang and Guarani artist originally from Brazil who now lives in Rome and Berlin, much like the Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham, who admittedly has well-recognised claims to international recognition; Mestiza artist Teresa Margolles lives in Madrid and Mexico City; the late Jangarh Singh Shyam, a Gond artist born in Pattangarh village in India, died in Tokamachi, Japan. The country of residence for several other Sakahàn artists differs from their country of birth. Does this mobility make them global/international artists? Or should it be the global/international relevance of their artworks that should determine whether they may be qualified as such?

Jimmie Durham, Encore tranquilité, 2008. Photo: Aurogeeta Das, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada.

Leaving aside the difficulties of deciding who qualifies as an international artist is the task of determining who may call him/herself an indigenous person. One could, for instance, follow national governments’s definitions of indigenous peoples. In Australia, the three criteria for determining who may lay claim to indigenous identity are descent (Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander), self-identification and community acceptance. In India, rather than a clear-cut definition, certain characteristics are broadly considered with reference to those who may request “Scheduled Tribe” status. These are geographical isolation often caused by inhospitable environments; poor sanitation, health and literacy; social backwardness; a closed economy and a distinctive culture, language and religion. Problems that are common among tribal people in India are demands for agricultural reforms; environmental concerns; rights to the use of natural resources and political rights, especially those that relate to autonomy and finally, timidity of contact. One might say that many—if not all—of these problems are shared by indigenous peoples the world over to a greater or lesser degree. Indeed, several of the artworks in Sakahàn engage explicitly with indigenous peoples’ distinctive cultures, languages and religions; environmental concerns; rights to the use of natural resources; political rights, and additionally, violence, which is often caused by struggles against oppressors. Given the diverse interpretations of indigeneity that different governments have adopted, perhaps the Sakahàn curators’s decision to address the definitional challenge by focusing only on those artists who identify themselves as “indigenous”, was a wise one. The reason Bengali patua artists were not included in the show was indeed because they do not identify themselves as indigenous even if others may do so occasionally. Nevertheless, since their art touches upon indigeneity, it may well be worth including such artists in future exhibitions. The Sakahàn curators seem open to considering such a move. Conversely, the question of whether all art made by indigenous peoples counts as indigenous art begs to be asked. While self-definition may prove to be a better basis than others, and one that to a certain extent sidesteps the inevitable minefield of race and identity politics, it does give rise to inclusions that some artists and visitors may argue with. Sakahàn artist Nadia Myre, for example, averred that she would not necessarily consider Mestiza artist Teresa Margolles as indigenous. The Australian government and the Aboriginal people themselves emphasise that skin colour is not a factor for consideration in determining who may lay claim to indigenous identity. Despite this, indigenous artist Janelle Evans informed me at a Paris conference on contemporary art and indigenous identity (which followed on from Sakahàn),6 that there are some who dubiously regard Sakahàn artist Danie Mellor’s claim to being an indigenous artist. This skepticism may be based on his light skin tone and is apparently exacerbated by his non-possession of government-recognised ID. Note that the decision to apply for this ID, which would allow an aboriginal person to apply for government funding for their work, is optional and entirely personal.

Skeptics will find that the Sakahàn catalogue states not only the country of origin and the country of residence for each artist, but also the name of their tribe(s). Mellor, for example, is (self)-identified as Mamu, Ngajan and Ngagen. The listing of individual tribes is a politically strategic decision that is aimed at resisting colonial definitions and terms. It also, just as importantly, resists homogenisation and reminds us of the many individual tribes that make up indigenous plurality. Favouring the U.N.’s use of the word “indigenous” over other less inclusive terms, Lalonde quotes David Garneau in the show’s catalogue:

The long gestation of the indigenous as meta-discursive beings means, for example, the end of traditional anthropology—in the sense of Peoples’s in need of dominant others to read them into being. We read, write, and critique ourselves into contemporaneity. This is self-determination. Figuring out what is or who are essentially indigenous is no longer a Settler issue, it is an indigenous problem.7

Vernon Ah Kee, cantchant, 2009.
Photo: Aurogeeta Das, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada.

In this sense, the curators show a keen understanding of the entrenched divisions between art and anthropology, between perceptions of the dominant Settlers or Colonisers of the indigenous “others”, and the indigenous peoples themselves.8 The only clearly non-indigenous person included in the show is Dutch artist John Noestheden, who collaborates with Canadian Inuit artist Shuvinai Ashoona. His participation raises the question of whether or not a non-indigenous person can create indigenous art. What is important is that Sakahàn appears to have invigorated existing discussions on what constitutes indigeneity.9 Indeed, as Lalonde asserts, the term indigenous should be viewed as a constantly evolving one. Neither the discussions nor the exhibition itself provide definitive answers, but that they give rise to revitalised debate is a sign of the exhibition’s relevance in Canada and elsewhere.

Given the increasing awareness of visitors and artists of the above-mentioned pressure on major museums to “up the ante” vis-à-vis global perspectives in their shows, curators are now also obliged to demonstrate a long-term commitment to diversity. Several Sakahàn artists questioned the basement location of the Inuit gallery in the NGC’s permanent display, shrewdly wondering whether this somewhat marginal position reflected the NGC’s broader policy towards indigenous art and whether, therefore, Sakahàn was merely about fulfilling a diversity quota in the short-term. The full programme of events, including educational activities and the curators’s own enthusiastic plans for quinquennial global exhibitions of indigenous art indicate that such cynicism may be misplaced. In this instance, it will be interesting to observe how the NGC develops upon the impetus gained at Sakahàn. In her essay, “Placing Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery of Canada”, Whitelaw traces the history of the inclusion of indigenous art at the NGC, which she dates back to the late eighties, when the NGC began to show the works of First Nations artists.10 Although this inclusion came relatively late, considering the significant indigenous population in the country, it was nevertheless more robust in comparison to countries like India, for example, where indigenous art is still often relegated to “crafts” institutions—a situation that is admittedly changing.

The NGC’s symposium, which accompanied the opening week of the exhibition saw spirited participation by visitors and artists alike. Speakers included Diana Nemiroff, who mentioned both the NGC’s Land, Spirit and Power, which she curated with Robert Houle and Charlotte Townsend-Gault (NGC, Ottawa, 1992) and Centre Pompidou’s Magiciens de la terre (Jean Hubert Martin, Paris, 1989); the latter, she felt, was a “starting point” for shows such as Sakahàn. Indeed, I would propose that the practice of having a large team of international advisors may well have started—or been cemented—with Magiciens de la terre. Barring smaller solo shows like the NGC’s Norval Morrisseau: Shaman, Artist (Greg Hill et al, 2006), what is perhaps most pertinent about Sakahàn is how radically its treatment of indigenous art differs from previous large-scale international shows that have featured indigenous cultural objects. While MOMA’s Primitivism (William Rubin, New York, 1984) did not even bother to name the indigenous artists whose creations were regarded as mere inspirational fodder to Western modernists, Magiciens de la terre exoticised indigenous artists and clearly set them apart from modern Western artists, problematically implying through the selection process and the modes of display that non-Western artists were solely indigenous, engaged with distinct subjects that did not relate to those that Western modernists grappled with. Consequently, and despite Jean Hubert Martin’s intentions to express the contrary, they were not portrayed as “contemporary” as artists from the so-called established centres of art.11

Wangechi Mutu, Sleeping Heads, 2006. Photo: Aurogeeta Das, courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada.

In contrast, Land, Spirit, Power celebrated the richness of art by First Nations people in Canada, but notwithstanding the appropriateness of the subject, the scope of the show was nevertheless limited by focussing it on a theme that has somewhat distorted and exoticized interpretations in the popular imaginary.12 Further, it suffered from what previous and future exhibitions would continue to battle against: How to promote and disseminate a thus-far oppressed peoples, or in this instance, their marginalised art, whilst simultaneously trying to integrate it into a broader mainstream? The difficulties of according respect and value to diverse practices and objects by particular groups without falling victim to the tendency to essentialize or homogenize their narratives are commonly faced by advocates of indigenous arts.

Gayatri Spivak’s theory of “strategic essentialism”, which has since been disavowed but not entirely rejected by the writer herself, was touched upon in Jolene Rickard’s essay in the Sakahàn catalogue.13 In principle, Spivak’s concept refers to the practice of groups (ethnic groups for example) adopting a position of solidarity for a brief period, despite internal differences, for the purpose of strengthening their voice for advancing social action.14 Despite Spivak’s own reservations about the term being misused and misappropriated by others, this concept may be key with reference to Sakahàn, because one of the questions that was raised by visitors and participating artists alike was about the merits and demerits of “pigeonholing” indigenous artists in the distinct category of “indigeneity”. However, as Greg Hill pointed out, such limitations appear to be highlighted only when issues of ethnicity or race are involved, whereas other subject-based shows do not appear to be regarded as being in any way constrained on the basis of a thematic framework.

Rather than regard the term “indigenous” as a limiting label, the
co-curators of the show have chosen to celebrate the richness of diverse indigenous cultures. The myriad perspectives, media and approaches adopted by the artists in the show testify that the effort is not only well-intentioned but to a large extent successful. Certainly, the artists of the show were pleased to be participating in it, despite the questions they raised. One of these was hybridity. At a roundtable during the symposium, Sakahàn artists were asked about whether they felt the concept of hybridity was relevant to the exhibition. Whether regarded as a critique of essentialism or as a cultural by-product of globalisation, unresolved debates about the term may have led to Samoan artist Shigeyuki Kihara’s dismissal of it; a wariness that seemed to be endorsed by her colleagues. Kihara felt that comparing indigeneity to hybridity was meaningless and offensive, and that it may even refer to the political inefficacy of the term. What emerges from both the show and the artists’s own outspoken articulations is how much more complex and specific indigeneity is—historically, culturally, politically and racially—than could possibly be explained away by hybridity, itself prone to essentialist stances. Instead, and despite the umbrella terms used in the show’s title, the artworks seem to defy categorisation. While Sakahàn’s use of umbrella terms continues to sit uncomfortably with long-term goals to integrate (not homogenize) indigenous art into a broader mainstream, it is this defiance of pigeonholing that the show expresses, and which turns it into a landmark show. Sakahàn means “to light the fire” in Algonquin. In the catalogue, Greg Hill positions himself in 2038, as if he were looking back at how Sakahàn will have lit the fire for future quinquennial exhibitions.15 While some of his ambitions seem undesirable (such as wanting the show to achieve biennial-type status), other contemplations are pertinent. He situates “indigenous” as a term and concept in diverse political and historical contexts, teasing out the specifics of how they developed in relation to colonial experiences. What is most useful is his reminder that the term “indigenous” must remain mutable, both as a term and for the meanings it connotes. The rest of us must wait to see how future quinquennial shows planned at the NGC will explore both the possibilities and challenges of that plasticity.

  • 1. Despite the fact that Merriam Webster’s dictionary recognises only the noun “indigenousness”, “indigeneity” is preferred here. At the most basic level, I think myriad attributes make up the state of indigeneity and it seems to me that indigenousness appears to suggest that a single quality or attribute qualifies the indigenous; I therefore prefer the term indigeneity. For an argument focusing on the distinctions between indigenousness, indigeneity and indigenism, especially one that takes into account post-colonial debates, see Jace Weaver’s chapter ”Indigenousness and Indigeneity” in Companion to Postcolonial Studies: An Historical
    Introduction, Eds. Henry Schwarz and Sangeeta Ray (Malden (MA): Wiley-Blackwell, 2004).
  • 2. I use the word Western here, despite it being a problematic term to use in this context. It connotes predominantly White Anglo-American museum practices, which have traditionally excluded or at the very least marginalised cultural objects and practices by indigenous peoples within the West as well as non-Western practices elsewhere, whether indigenous or otherwise.
  • 3. Note from the editors: We agreed with the author that this critique should be attenuated in the aftermath of recent large-scale exhibitions such as Anselm Franke’s Animism (Antwerp, Bern, Vienna, Berlin 2011–2012), Okwui Enwezor’s Intense Proximity (Paris, 2012), Documenta 13 (Kassel, 2012) or Massimiliano Gioni’s Palazzo Enciclopedico (Venice Biennial, 2013). Far from solving the issues of the ambiguous relationship between works of contemporary art and anthropological or cultural objects, these exhibitions nevertheless emphasized an inclusive desire for non-art objects in the field of contemporary art.
  • 4. Arts of the Arctic, an early programme of five travelling exhibitions of indigenous art from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia and Sápmi, was held between 1984 and 1995. With participation in Sakahàn triggering her memory of participating in Arts of the Arctic, Ingunn Utsi recalled how the earlier exhibitions’s production, planning and implementation taxed the personal resources of organisers. Some may regard Arts of the Arctic as being, on a smaller scale, a precursor to exhibitions like Sakahàn. Despite the existence of the Sámi Art Museum in Norway, perhaps what distinguishes Sakahàn and other large-scale exhibitions is not just their more expansive international scope but also the extent of the institutional support these receive when compared to earlier efforts.
  • 5. Shelley Errington, “Globalizing Art History”, in Is Art History Global, ed. James Elkins (London: Routledge, 2007), 405–440.
  • 6. Art contemporain et identités autochtones : Une contre-écriture de la mondialisation, Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in asscociation with Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3 (org. by Zahia Rahmani and Jean-Philippe Uzel), Paris: INHA, May 29–30, 2013.
  • 7. David Garneau, “Necessary Essentialism and Contemporary Aboriginal Art,” in [symposium]
    Essentially Indigenous? Contemporary Native Arts, New York: National Museum of the American Indian, May 5–6, 2011, publication forthcoming. Quoted by Christine Lalonde, “Introduction: At the Crossroads of Indigeneity, Globalization and Contemporary Art,” in Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2013), 15.
  • 8. For a discussion on some of the prejudices that further entrench divisions between art and anthropology, see Aurogeeta Das. 2010. “Metropolitan and Traditional: An Exploration of Semantics in Contemporary Indian Arts Discourse”. In Etnofoor: Imitation, eds. Birgit Meyer and Rob van Ginkel (Guest eds. Andrew Whitehouse and Petra Tjitske Kalshoven), Amsterdam 22 (1): 118–135.
  • 9. For discussions on indigeneousness, especially those offering post-colonial perspectives, see: Heather Igloliorte, Decolonize-me, Décolonisez-moi (Ottawa: Ottawa Art Gallery / The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2012); Daniel J. Rycroft (ed.), World Art and the Legacies of Colonial Violence (Surrey BC: Ashgate, 2013); Daniel J. Rycroft and Sangeeta Dasgupta, The Politics of Belonging in India: Becoming Adivasi (London: Routledge, 2011); and Sally Price, Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007). For discussions arguing for the importance of gendered decolonisation, see Joyce Green (ed.), Making Space for Indigenous Feminism (Nova Scotia, London: Fernwood Publishing / Zed Books, 2007).
  • 10. Anne Whitelaw. 2006. “Placing Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery of Canada” in Canadian Journal of Communication 31 (1). However, Lalonde mentions in the Sakahàn catalogue that the NGC started collecting First Nations sculptures in the 1950s. Whether these were shown soon after acquisition is unclear but it does put into question Whitelaw’s identification of the NGC’s earliest acquisitions of indigenous art.
  • 11. It is pertinent to emphasise here that MOMA’s Primitivism; Pompidou’s Magiciens de la terre; the NGC’s Land, Spirit, Power; and Sakahàn do not all necessarily use the term “indigenous art”. MOMA, not surprisingly—given the title of the exhibition—used “primitive” and “tribal”. Although Jean Hubert Martin sought to avoid the term “art” and “artist” altogether, and hence used “magician”, the exhibition material did use both “tribe” and “aboriginal”. Land, Spirit, Power, on the other hand, used “First Nations art”, and art by artists “of native ancestry”. Others frequently use the terms “aboriginal” or “native”. Another exhibition, one that I have not discussed here (Histoires de Voir, Paris: Fondation Cartier, 2012) uses the term “naïve” with reference to interpretations of some of the show’s artworks, which include indigenous art from India. “Indigenous” now seems to be emerging as a strong replacement for all these terms, revising earlier connotations of previously used words and one that is viewed as politically more effective and more global in its dimensions. However, while there may be changes in the practices and objects that demand scrutiny (especially, perhaps, with regards to media) and these influence terminology in some instances, it is predominantly the viewers’s interpretations that have caused changes in the terms used. In other words, changes in terminology appear to have occurred more because of shifts and continuums in the context of reception (display and critique), rather than in the context of production.
  • 12. This is not to say that the theme was irrelevant. Indeed, it was highly pertinent due to the very importance of land rights and disputes about claims being undermined, underestimated and/or under-reported. It also was in some ways an ideal theme in that it provided a focused yet broad framework to showcase the richness of art by First Nations artists in Canada. Furthermore, by introducing the perspectives of these artists on a theme that normally suffers from distorted or exoticized representations in the popular imaginary, it contributed to clarifying some of these popular misunderstandings.
  • 13. Jolene Rickard, “The Emergence of Global Indigenous Art” in Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2013), 54–60.
  • 14. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York: Methuen, 1987), 205, quoted by Rickard, ibid, 58.
  • 15. Greg A. Hill., “Afterward: Looking Back to Sakahàn” in Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2013), 136–140.