Over the past six years the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center has been given a rich assemblage of more than 200 Indigenous art works by collector Edward J. Guarino, including paintings, prints and drawings, pottery, and such crafts as basketry and textile weavings. Along with these valuable objects, Guarino has also contributed to the museum and the Vassar College curriculum his vast knowledge of the works as well as his close relationships with the artists.
His expertise has been particularly helpful for the growth of Vassar’s Native American Studies program, and an upcoming Art Center exhibit reflects this emerging relationship. The exhibit will be the culmination of a current course taught by English and Native American Studies professor Molly McGlennen -- with assistance from Guarino and the museum’s staff -- which is examining alternative approaches to the study and presentation of Indigenous art via a set of important contemporary Inuit works from the Guarino collection.
Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection will be a student-curated exhibit of eight works on paper presented from December 4, 2013, through February 2, 2014 in the Focus Gallery of the Art Center.
“Historically, Indigenous art has been collected and exhibited in limiting ways by framing objects as nameless crafts or curios and by rendering Native peoples and their histories through a romanticized and fated past,” said McGlennen. “Through this course and exhibit we aim to unsettle this enduring curatorial tradition by using the stories, writings, and theorization of Indigenous artists and scholars to contextualize the Inuit works of art.”
Toward this goal, the exhibition focuses on a particular group of North American Indigenous artists, specifically Inuit artists from Cape Dorset and Baker Lake (in Arctic regions of Canada), which share distinct languages, homelands and worldviews, rather than homogenously exhibiting a cross-section of tribal groups through the lens of cultural stereotypes. Through their curatorial work McGlennen and her class intend to reveal the complex dialogues these artists have created and maintained with the Western art world, both past and present. Because of this, the students have created multiple object labels to reflect various perspectives on each work.
Decolonizing the Exhibition will feature works on paper ranging in size from small to mural and comprising an array of styles, subjects, and techniques, drawn from both Inuit and other artistic traditions. Stylistically the works span the gamut from spare abstractions to cartoonish figurations and detailed narratives. They feature a broad spectrum of subject -- from dreamlike, surreal compositions to witty still-lifes such as a bra, to scenes inspired by autobiographical events, including memories of Inuit boarding school abuse. Techniques include watercolor, pencil, ink, paper collage, and various printing methods: historical European (drypoint, etching, acquatint, lithography), mid-twentieth century North American (collagraph), and contemporary local (stonecut and stencil).
Primarily created between 2006 and 2009, these eight works were made for the international art market. An important stonecut entitledAnimals out of Darkness (1961) by Johnniebo Ashevak (1923–1972) and Kenojuak Ashevak (1927–2013) -- the latter one of the most famous Inuit artists to date -- will lead off the exhibition as a way to mark the historical continuum of Inuit printmaking influencing the broader global art markets.
The Art Center’s presentation of Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection fulfills its mission to serve as an essential component of the Vassar curriculum across disciplines for faculty and students, according to Anna Mecugni, the museum’s interim Andrew W. Mellon Coordinator of Academic Affairs. “By revealing a portion of one of the most prominent and daring collections of Indigenous art in the Northeast, this exciting exhibition will offer a unique opportunity to experience and think critically about Indigenous peoples and their art in the present tense.”
Panel Discussion/"Decolonizing the Exhibition: Four Perspectives on Indigenous Visual Culture in the Museum Space”
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Taylor Hall, Room 102
Discussion will focus on the ways contemporary Indigenous art has historically been understood, collected, and displayed. Also to be examined is the extent to which the exhibit Decolonizing the Exhibition has reckoned with these concerns, as well as some of the ways contemporary Indigenous artists continue to narrate their own histories and realities despite certain Western market demands and stereotypes. Panelists will be Chitimacha/Choctaw artist Sarah Sense, Assistant Professor of English and Native American Studies Molly McGlennen, art collector and donor Edward J. Guarino, and Vassar junior Pilar Jefferson. Co-sponsored by the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, American Studies Program, and Department of English.
A reception at the Art Center will immediately follow the panel discussion.
ABOUT THE COURSE/"DECOLONIZING NATIVE AMERICAN ART"
Vassar senior Kristina Arike, an art history major, says she decided to enroll in Professor McGlennen’s course ”Decolonizing Native American Art” after taking a class in early American art. “Native American art was only touched on briefly, and I wanted to learn more,” Arike says.
To acquaint the fifteen students in her class with contemporary Native American artists, McGlennen assigned each of them a specific painting, drawing or print and had them prepare a description of the work for two exhibits -- one at the museum and the other a” virtual” exhibit online. Arike explains that McGlennen also gave the class a “crash course in Native American history to put some of the other things we’re learning in context.”
Arike says the course has helped her gain a proper perspective on the significance of Native American art. “I’m learning a lot about sovereignty, politically and culturally,” she says. “By recognizing their art and learning how important it is, Native people’s sovereignty becomes a real issue and not just a concept.”
This type of learning experience is exactly what Guarino had in mind when he chose to donate art works to Vassar. He knew they’d be used to enlighten students about the neglect shown by many in the art world to these artists and craftsmen.
“Native American art is often relegated to the back of museums; there’s a gaping hole in the story many museums are telling,” Guarino says.
McGlennen says one of the most common reactions she gets from her course is, ‘”Why haven’t I read this before in my history books? The answer is by leaving it out, our society is justifying the conquest,” she says, “and that leads us to ask, ‘Am I somehow complicit because I chose not to learn about this?’”
ABOUT THE FRANCES LEHMAN LOEB ART CENTER
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building's primary donor, opened in 1993. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar's extensive collections. The Art Center's collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 18,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college's inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American 20th-century painters.
Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free and all galleries are wheelchair accessible. The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 10:00am–5:00pm; Thursday, 10:00am–9:00pm; and Sunday, 1:00–5:00pm. Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and the Vanderbilt mansion. For additional information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit fllac.vassar.edu.
Directions to the Vassar campus, located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie (NY), are available atwww.vassar.edu/directions.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.