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David Sparks
AMST284: Decolonizing the Exhibition
Molly McGlennen
December 4, 2018

A Decolonized Exhibition or Just Another Metaphor? : The “Afterlife” of Decolonial Labor

“Though praised for their work, my students over the course of the semester, I believe, felt even
less certain—than before the onset of the class—about their ability to claim the work of
decolonization; however, there is no doubt they constructed a platform for an exhibition that had
never been imagined before in the space of my institution’s established East Coast museum.
Reflecting on that academic enterprise over the past handful of years, I believe that it can be the
incremental but persistent work of everyday action and language that can help open the minds of
people. But, in the end, I still wonder if that will ever be enough.”

Molly McGlennen, “Inuit Agencies” 16, my emphasis.

“Calling different groups ‘colonized’ without describing their relationship to settler colonialism is
an equivocation, “the fallacy of using a word in different senses at different stages of the
reasoning.” In particular, describing all struggles against imperialism as ‘decolonizing’ creates a
convenient ambiguity between decolonization and social justice work, especially among people of
color, queer people, and other groups minoritized by the settler nation-state. ‘We are all
colonized,’ may be a true statement but is deceptively embracive and vague, its inference: ‘None
of us are settlers. . . . Fanon told us in 1963 that decolonizing the mind is the first step, not the only
step toward overthrowing colonial regimes. Yet we wonder whether another settler move to
innocence is to focus on decolonizing the mind, or the cultivation of critical consciousness, as if it
were the sole activity of decolonization; to allow conscientization to stand in for the more
uncomfortable task of relinquishing stolen land . . . . Until stolen land is relinquished, critical
consciousness does not translate into action that disrupts settler colonialism. . . . [W]e understand
the curricular-pedogeological project of critical consciousness as settler harm reduction [harm
reduction models that attempt to reduce the harm or risk of specific practices] crucial in the
resuscitation of practices and intellectual life outside of settler ontologies. [But a]t the same time we
remember that, by definition, settler harm reduction, like conscientization, is not the same as
decolonization and does not inherently offer any pathways that lead to decolonization. . .
.Decolonization [must eliminate] settler property rights and settler sovereignty. It requires the
abolition of land as property and upholds the sovereignty of Native land and people. . . . [what we
might call an ethic of incommensurability]”

Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” 10-28.


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“But, in the end, I still wonder if that will ever be enough.” After learning Native Studies

perspectives towards Native art and conducting research for the exhibition for an entire semester, I

was struck by the way you ended this article and, as the last reading for the class, the course.

Reading of the former exhibit and the work students did with Inuit art/ists when compared to our

own caused several flashes of questions and trains of thought to pass over my head, some

consistent with the characterization you depict in the last paragraph: “Would the exhibition be

enough?” I thought to myself. Had we done enough as a class to prepare and represent these

artists? Would we come close to completing the goal of the class, decolonizing the exhibition?

How could we, as a group of mostly settler peoples, decolonize anything, anyways?—let alone an

exhibit space that in itself is a western institution, stifled with dynamic and specific connotations,

expectations, and histories of its own—on top of being at an institution oozing with prestige and

privilege like Vassar’s? Had we been throwing around the term too loosely? Did the exhibit itself

even deserve the title of “decolonizing”? And, above all, what in the hell would it mean for a class

of mostly settlers to decolonize something in the first place? Rooting myself in class readings,

Tuck and Yang’s “Decolonization is not a metaphor” provides sharp analyses of settler moves to

innocence which, when juxtaposed with attempts to ‘decolonize,’ offers a barometer for success.

The work of our course I feel ultimately unsettled ideas the Vassar public at large had about

Native peoples and created, barrowing theoretically from Chadwick Allen, an ‘afterlife’ in the

head of attendees about the current state of Native peoples and offered a basic vocabulary of key

terms like decolonization and sovereignty mean to Indigenous peoples and their active struggles

for land and treaty rights and for cultural and territorial autonomy.

Tuck and Yang offer a no-bullshit, straightforward understanding of what decolonization

means and how it has been misused and banalized as a concept through its use as metaphor. I

deeply read the article another time, and abstracted quotes that I feel constitute what Tuck and
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Yang would consider to be ‘decolonized’ which are on the front of this essay. Through this deep

reading, I came to see three norms or calls to action by Tuck and Yang when doing decolonial

labor: One should (1) specify the dynamic histories of Native peoples in relation to colonization,

marking their histories distinct not only against other minority groups but also tribally; the

racialization of Native peoples and deeming them another ‘minority’ group only aids the colonial

project of de-possessing Native peoples even farther from their lands; (2) make sure

‘decolonization’ is not used as a stand in for other social justice terms/theories used for fighting

against imperialism; and (3) emphasize the importance of material reparations to Native peoples,

especially that in the form of land, food programs, and funds for social aid programs like language

revitalization efforts or substance abuse programs. These three calls, I believe, characterize Tuck

and Yang’s understanding and use of ‘decolonization,’ which, through an ethic of

incommensurability, unsettles white settlers and forces them to be struck with the fact that they are

enacting systematic violence onto Native peoples. As Tuck and Yang remind us, “[d]ecolonization

[must eliminate] settler property rights and settler sovereignty. It requires the abolition of land as

property and upholds the sovereignty of Native land and people. . . . [what we might call an ethic

of incommensurability]” So, as a reminder, to decolonize, one must be specific in their

characterization of colonization, tactful about their use of decolonization to ensure it is more than

metaphoric, and constantly aware of an ethics of incommensurability, emphasizing that settlers are

on Native land and it will not be decolonized until every last one is gone.

Looking at the exhibition through Tuck and Yang’s characterization of decolonization, I

feel that the course in some ways attended to each of these details in the lecture with Jaune, the

selection of the art/theme of the exhibition, and the exhibition itself, especially looking at the

labels we created. By starting off with an acknowledgement that all non-Indigenous peoples in this

country and space are settlers on Wappingers, Mohican, and Lenape land, we bring the audience
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and school into consciousness of their responsibilities as settlers in this country and the very real

realities of their being here as a result of ongoing colonization. Without going into the

problematics and politics of Vassar as an institution, having Jaune at this place to speak was a

political act of its own and gave recognition to the work of her and other contemporary Native

artists. Jaune received compensation and was able to get her messages of environmentalism and

highlight other Native artists, like the local artist who drove nearly two hours to come see Jaune

that she recognized during the presentation. This moment, I’m sure, also offered important

moments for alliance building and fruitful conversations about Native art between yourself and

Jaune, and these types of moments for coalition building and sharing ideas are also essentially

political at their base. Having Jaune at our class had this effect, so I can only assume it did the

same for you and the other Native artist in attendance. Your selection of art with ideas and themes

of futures in their work intentionally shifted away from common ideas and misrepresentation of

Native peoples in American media and culture. By focusing on these theme of futures, we show

how the decolonial can be found in the mental resistance work Native peoples put into their art as

they create themselves and their communities into narratives and scenes of imagined futures.

These futures often are ones where Native peoples take back these misrepresentations and face

every day acts of colonization.

These types of ideas were especially present in our labels. Focusing on the voices of the

artists themselves through statements, interviews, and entering into conversation with them, I feel

we did the best job we could representing the artists intent while situating the art within a Native

Studies and, therefore, colonial context that forced readers and attendees to critically see the art

within historical, social, and political contexts. Students in the class looked at varying Native

Studies approaches to art and used powerful tools developed by the discipline—like “indianness,”

“playing Indian,” Indian princess/sq**w, etc.—to deconstruct their pieces. This process of label
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creating ensured to the best of our ability that interpretations were not based on our western biases

or hunches. Getting into conversation with the artists I feel was the most cool part of it all and

what made the interpretation of every label tact. For example, I sent a draft of my label to

Tomahawk when working on it because I thought he of all people would be able to say if my

interpretation was on-par, and he gave it a thumbs-up himself. I don’t know how you can be more

accurate with your representation when you have the artists stamp of approval. Beyond these

points, all of the pieces in the exhibition were also purchased by Ed, with some pieces like one of

the Sarah Senses commissioned particularly for Ed’s gallery. By working with work that has

artists being paid—versus the display of something we in the west would consider an ‘artifact’ that

has no one known creator—we, in a small way, show the importance of buying these types of

Native art, by shouting from our labels that Native art and voices matter.

But, is this enough to be decolonial? I feel Tuck and Yang would say no. I feel we did

important work that is very political and rare, and that work unsettled assumptions, gave

intellectual space and praise for Native work, and profited Native artists in some way; however, I

feel we did not stress land rights and the ethics of incommensurability/culpability of settlers that

the two scholars emphasize over and over again through the piece is necessary for something to

truly be decolonial. This critique is similar to Amy Lonetree’s in her analysis of the NMAI in

“Museums as Sites of Decolonization.” Lonetree argues:

[The NMAI] fails to tell the hard truths of colonization and the genocidal acts that have
been committed against Indigenous people. . . Given the silences around the subject of
colonialism and its ongoing effects, . . . the museum fails to serve as a site of truth telling
and remembering and [thus] remains very much an institution of the nation-state (2013:
322-3).
On key with Tuck and Yang’s analysis, Lonetree emphasizes the importance for gut-wrenching

confrontation with the uncomfortabilities of colonialism in successfully decolonial museum

spaces. I feel we could have done more work to do this, orienting settler colonialism into a Native
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American context in a history section or area, as many people do not know the specificities and

violences perpetuated against Native peoples that are distinct from other colonized peoples.

Besides this, I feel we did a pretty good job!

Again, I return to the question, was our work enough? Sure, the colonial nation-state still

exists. Settlers are still on this land, and as Jaune Quick-To-See Smith outlined for us herself, the

current state of Native American and the world is not very pretty, filled with everyday acts of

systematic violence and cast aside by the American mainstream, all plagued by the impending

doom of climate change. But, in spite of this, we continued to work, and the work of our class

intentionally centered Native peoples, their lives, and their cultural production for a semester,

which in of itself is a radical and rare act. Our class highlighted voices and stories that seldom get

told. We gave material and intellectual support to Native artists by displaying their work,

circulating images of their creations and creating publicity/documentation of their existence. Many

of these artists as we have discussed in class just wanted to be seen and understood. By circulating

their images and work, I feel we are doing them some justice and doing exactly what they want,

for their work to be recognized as legitimate contemporary art and displayed in public, having

people reckon firsthand with the dynamic realities Native peoples have and how through their

determination and resistance, have persistence into the future. It may be small, and I do not feel

that it was entirely decolonial in its nature based on Tuck and Yang’s characterization, but I do

feel we, as a group of mostly settler peoples in the course, unsettled the colonial space of the

Palmer Gallery and the idea of what constitutes a modern art gallery in general and did some

decolonial labor.

Thanks again for the class! One of the top three classes I’ve taken at Vassar! 😊
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Works Cited

Lonetree, Amy “Museums as Sites of Decolonization” in Contesting Knowledge 2013.

McGlennen, Molly “Inuit Agencies” in Visualities II, 2019 (forthcoming).

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang “Decolonization is not a metaphor” 2012.