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Essays / February 28, 2017

8 Texts on Indigenous Art That Put Things in Perspective

Richard William Hill rounds up must-read essays, books and critiques that shape how Indigenous art discourses have developed—and how they continue today.
The first page of Jimmie Durham and Jean Fisher‘s remarkable text in the Summer 1988 issue of <em>Artforum</em>, “The Ground Has Been Covered.” The first page of Jimmie Durham and Jean Fisher‘s remarkable text in the Summer 1988 issue of Artforum, “The Ground Has Been Covered.”

Note to the reader: I am using this regular column to think out loud in public about questions and controversies arising from my current research for a book about contemporary Indigenous art from 1980 to 1995.

Like exhibitions, texts about art can be roughly divided into two categories: those that focus on a single artist (or even a single work) and those that cast a wider net in the attempt to capture a relevant thematic or a socio-political context shared by a number of artists. This column will focus on the latter, looking at eight texts that helped to both put into perspective and make space for the explosion of new ideas and imagery among artists of Indigenous heritage that reached critical mass in the 1980s.

This informal and all too incomplete survey is meant primarily to stimulate the reader’s desire to read or re-read the originals and to search further afield for the many other equally important texts that I could not find space for here. As usual, they are presented in chronological order.

“The Emergence of a New Aesthetic Tradition” by Robert Houle in New Work by a New Generation, 1982

Houle’s essay is a manifesto of sorts, a declaration claiming space and legitimacy for the artists of his generation. It begins by asserting the present moment: “Today, there is an emergence of a new art by a new generation of young artists. These artists…come from two different aesthetic traditions: North American and Western European.” To emerge, they must defeat misrepresentation, as well as evade potential marginalization within the discipline of anthropology.

This new generation of artists has navigated art schools, where they gained knowledge, but also crossed “a dangerous minefield of assimilation and oblivion.” Artists who are able retain access to their Indigenous heritage while harnessing the critical capacities of Modernism can slip the paternalistic ghetto of Indian arts and crafts to create “an independent art…relevant to contemporary Indian and Inuit life.” The process synthesizes both cultural traditions through innovation “to reaffirm one of the most important aspects of native cultures, the capacity to harness revolutionary ideas into agents of change, revitalizing tradition.”

“The Ground Has Been Covered” by Jimmie Durham and Jean Fisher in Artforum International, Summer 1988

The convoluted road this essay took to publication echoes its subject: the difficulty Indigenous artists face in claiming space in a public sphere in which Indigenous culture has already been “covered” by various non-Indigenous experts.

Durham writes: “I want to say my own things to the world, and so, of course, given history, part of ‘my own things’ is that you don’t let me say anything.” Indeed, the management of knowledge into various specializations functions as a mechanism of disempowerment, producing “a kind of complicity that makes the Mafia’s methods of producing complicity seem childishly underdeveloped.”

Since any attempt to correct misrepresentations by offering a contrary view will simply be appropriated by the larger system, the artist’s only move is a gesture of deconstruction that undermines confidence in all of the identity positions that have been deployed in perpetuating the system.

Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, in order to get to say these things in Artforum, Durham needed help. In an unpublished interview, his friend Jean Fisher, who wrote reviews for the magazine, described what happened:

I went to the editor, who was then Ingrid Sischy, and I said, ‘Hey, there’s this great writer, Jimmie Durham, he’s Native American, do you know who he is?’


I said, ‘You should have a piece by him, he’s a fantastic writer.’

‘I’ve never heard of him.’

‘Well he’s been editor of this magazine…Art and Artists, he can write…’

So there was a bit of arguing about this and then she said, ‘All right, I’ll accept a piece by him if you write [it with him] as well.’

So I went and reported back to Jimmie and he said, ‘Alright you write your bit, I’ll write my bit and then we’ll splice them altogether.’

Each essay was written independently and then stitched together, so that a few paragraphs by Durham are presented, then a few by Fisher, and vice versa until the end. Durham’s text was set off in bold so the two voices could be distinguished. This Dadaist composition was accepted for publication. When I first read it, I assumed it was intended as a postmodern demonstration of intertextuality, and I was surprised to learn, years later, that it was simply a trick necessary to gain access to an important platform in the art world.

“In the Red” by Joane Cardinal-Schubert in FUSE Magazine, Fall 1989

Concern about systemic misrepresentation soon erupted into a high-volume and often quite bitter debate over cultural appropriation. To the best of my knowledge, this discussion, at least insofar as it relates to Indigenous cultures, began in the realm of literature—but I think Cardinal-Schubert’s article in the now-defunct FUSE Magazine was the most directly focused on the art world, with scathing criticism of specific artworks and artists. Cardinal-Schubert was a fighter—I’m sure circumstances dictated that she had to be—and the sort of person who would never pull a pistol when a nuclear weapon would suffice.

Amidst all this scorched earth, however, there were real issues that needed to be put on the table, and Cardinal-Schubert did so. The essay is divided between, first, presenting a history of contemporary Indigenous art and its exclusion from the mainstream and, second, presenting instances of cultural appropriation. The two problems clearly go together, the former turning the latter into a crisis transcending simple ignorance or misrepresentation.

The weakness of the article is the author’s insistence that the motivation for appropriation is always economic exploitation, which is an over-simplification. “Money,” she writes, “that is what appropriating is about.” Despite beginning with a quote from Durham’s essay above, the focus on money misses one of his key points, which is that if all you do is demand “a share of the profits, a piece of the action,” then the “system stays the same—it’s just bought another person invested in its success.”

It’s also unfair to conflate the greed of fake tourist-trinket makers with the motivations of contemporary artists. I think Andy Fabo got a particularly rough ride in this regard. Although I still consider the appropriation of sweat-lodge imagery in his painting that Cardinal-Schubert is concerned about to be a problem, I have no doubt that his art from that period was motivated less by a desire for money than it was by the need to work through the trauma of the AIDS crisis, which was very traumatic indeed in the early 1990s. (I do not regret much that I have put in print over the years, but I do still mentally flagellate myself from time to time about my own contribution to the appropriation debate. It was published while I was still a callow and angry young art student, and I regret not being wise enough to give Fabo credit for good intentions either. It was a failure of empathy I have tried not to repeat. If it’s not too late, I apologize.)

“Construction of the Imaginary Indian” by Marcia Crosby in Vancouver Anthology, edited by Stan Douglas, 1991

In this essay, Crosby moves fluidly between personal experience and incisive cultural critique as she dismantles both the imaginary Indian and the “civilized” colonizer who produces an image of himself through the creation of an imaginary other. “The purpose of this paper,” Crosby tells us early on, “is to refuse the prescribed space set aside for the Imaginary Indian.”

She describes discussing with a relative their earlier shared “wanting and trying to be ‘white,’” which she now understands to be a product of the assimilation agenda of the state. She goes on: “Once, it seemed to me that the world was a binary system. First there were white people and then there was the Indian stereotype…I no longer aspire to be white, any more than I believe I am limited to playing out the roles of the pseudo-Indians constructed by Western institutions.”

Thus liberated, she proceeds to dismantle images encountered through her own experiences in academia, where, she writes, “I saw, in the images, texts and authoritative academic voices of a Eurocentric institution, the ugly Indian I thought only existed in the minds of the uneducated in my small town.”

She concludes with a warning: “Whether our otherness is embraced by art connoisseurs and contemporary critics, or studied as a science, or collected by archaeologists, otherness supposes cultural hierarchies and exclusionary practices.” Until the representational system and the power relations that underpin it are dismantled, the perils of exclusion and appropriation persist.

Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America by Lucy Lippard, 1990

I include Lippard’s book both because of its impact and because it situates Indigenous art within a wider context of culturally diverse art practices of the period. While it’s true that Indigenous issues often involve questions others do not face—such as sovereignty and treaty or other claims to land and resources—these questions do not play out in a vacuum or through a simplistic Indigenous–white binary.

Indeed, Lippard’s book takes mixing seriously, with a title that she claims “reflects not doubt about its value, but a certain anxiety about the forms it could take.”

One way to think of the book, then, is as the articulation of a series of cultural challenges arising from the complex and not always consensual ways in which we have been thrown together, as well as a repertoire of critical strategies for dealing with them. The book is organized into a series of chapters titled after approaches that artists have used to critique, redefine and claim space for themselves: “Mapping,” “Naming,” “Telling,” “Landing,” “Mixing,” “Turning Around,” “Dreaming.” In each, Lippard moves with apparent ease across a range of ideas and practices, drawing out deep and wide-ranging connections without ignoring local or other specificities.

One need only to look at a 1963 quote from James Baldwin, which opens the “Naming” chapter, to see how valuable the intellectual tools developed by other racialized communities might be to the issues I have already noted above. Baldwin said: “So where we are now is that a whole country of people believe I’m a ‘nigger,’ and I don’t, and the battle’s on! Because if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either! And that is the crisis.” In a recent email, Lippard told me she has always regretted not including a chapter on whiteness, which, as Baldwin argues, cannot escape unscathed.

“Every Picture Tells a Story” by Paul Chaat Smith in Partial Recall: Photographs of Native North Americans, edited by Lucy Lippard, 1992

This was the first of Smith’s essays that I ever read, way back in 1992 when it came out. By no means was I ready for it. The innocuous title lulled me into a false sense of security. Then suddenly I was laughing. And then wondering if it was okay to laugh. And then suddenly thinking really differently about the Indigenous relationship to both technology and traditional life than I had before.

Since then, I have followed his work assiduously, and he has never failed to make me think about something I hadn’t considered, or to slay me with his deadpan humour. (If you don’t own his anthology, Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong, which includes this essay, I suggest you get a copy immediately.)

I think that Smith’s secret is the courage to both imagine what it would be like if we thought of Indigenous people as normal human beings and to say truthfully what the consequences of that perspective are. By normal, I don’t mean measured against the false universalism of modernity, but in a more generic way, as peoples who are neither savage villains nor naturally/mystically attuned to the secrets of the universe. Just peoples with virtues and flaws like all other humans. Given the heights and depths humans are capable of, that’s more than enough.

In this essay, Smith takes on the Indigenous relationship to new technologies in general and photography in particular. He argues, “Contrary to what most people (Indians and non-Indians alike) now believe, our true history is one of constant change, technological innovation, and intense curiosity about the world. How else do explain our instantaneous adaptation of horses, rifles, flour, and knives?”

And, although people like to imagine a primitive Indian stunned into awe by what my wife’s mother used to jokingly call the “white man’s magic” of the camera, Smith is not convinced. Cameras were a novelty to the entire world when they first appeared and “we have been using photography…as long as there have been cameras.” The problem, as he sees it, is that we often can’t reconcile our fascination with technology with our internalization of romantic myths about ourselves. Therefore: “For our part, we dimly accept the role of Spiritual Masters and First Environmentalists as we switch cable channels and videotape weddings and ceremonies.”


“Kinds of Knowing” by Charlotte Townsend-Gault in Land, Spirit, Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada, 1992

Although I have not really been summarizing essays here, but rather plucking out ideas that engage me, this essay, perhaps more than any other, is resistant to a reductive treatment. Townsend-Gault’s writing is, here and elsewhere, expansive in the best sense: erudite across cultures and disciplines, thoughtful, poetic, always cautious of tidy, too-simple explanations.

This strikes me as an extremely suitable approach to addressing the epistemic and disciplinary challenges provoked by the work of contemporary Indigenous artists. She framed the problematic in these terms: “These artists are making interventions into some of the most daunting ethical and epistemological issues of our shared time and space, including whether our ideas of that time and space are in fact commensurate and therefore can be shared.”

After making her way through the many strategies artists and theorists have used to challenge existing frameworks and representations and to draw on images and ideas in contemporary practices, Townsend-Gault concludes with a caution against reducing cultural exchange to only those areas of common ground in order to protect “all sides from zealous over-simplification, by acknowledging a final untranslatability of certain concepts and subtleties from one culture to another.” The implication is that the desire for mastery of knowledge is itself a problem: “We can know many things, whoever ‘we’ may be. But we can never know everything.”

One of the charms of this essay is that it harbours a structural reflection of the problem of exclusion and the impossibility of total knowledge often implied by a large survey exhibition: each of the many artworks discussed are not actually in the show itself.

“Reconnecting the Past: an Indian Idea of History” by Deborah Doxtator in Revisions, 1992

I often wonder about the many things the Mohawk scholar Deborah Doxtator might have done if she had not died tragically young of cancer in 1998, in the early stages of her career. Doxtator’s work was so valuable because she was a sharp, critical thinker, capable of deep and sustained scholarly research, who was nevertheless always questioning the methodological assumptions of the several disciplines she worked across.

I like this essay because of the thoughtful challenge it allows art objects to present to the modern linear temporality that sociologist Bruno Latour has described as an “irreversible arrow” moving in a single direction from the past to modernity. She is clear that our exclusion from public discourse goes hand in hand with our exclusion from modernity, which depends on “the public perception that the essence of ‘Indianess’ is a connection to a distant and disappeared past.” Indigenous art is valued and consumed just insofar as it can be seen to represent a “pre-historic, pre-industrial past.”

Contemporary Indigenous artists, she argues, offer “different versions, or visions of ‘Indianess’ and, in the process, of the concept of history itself.” Importantly, this art does not repress its traffic with objects and images of the past: “artists are constantly mixing and juxtaposing the past with the present because…it is the connections rather than the divisions that are important.” Nothing can be left safely stranded in the museum, beyond current use. Therefore engagement with history is just that; an activation of agency that resides in heritage objects, images and ideas through their contact with present concerns. Historic things are not made illegitimate by becoming entangled with present concerns, but in fact are only ever truly brought back into life by this very process.

Richard William Hill is Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Studies at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. If you have advice, information, documents or anything else that might help him with his research on Indigenous art from 1980 to 1995, he would be grateful to hear from you: Thanks to the many people who have already been in touch.

This post was corrected on March 8, 2017. The original copy implied that Paul Chaat Smith’s last name was “Chaat Smith,” rather than “Smith.”