(P041)
A Grey Zone: Sites of Contemporary Art and Anthropology
Location SOAS Main Building - 4429
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 16:30
Sessions 1

Convenors

  • Fuyubi Nakamura (University of British Columbia) email
  • Nicola Levell (University of British Columbia) email

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Short abstract

Anthropology museums remain arenas of contestation, and contemporary art presents itself as an agitation or even irritation that seeks a response. This panel seeks to encourage dialogue on contemporary art and anthropology through an examination of recent exhibitions and projects.

Long abstract

"Classic anthropological sites becoming sites of contemporary art is a grey zone, and a challenging proposition to accept." These are the words of Dana Claxton, an interdisciplinary artist, educator and Lakota woman, articulated in 2010. Her sentiments resonate with those expressed by other contemporary artists, who refuse to work with or have their works displayed in anthropology museums because they are perceived as spaces of segregation, rather than contact zones, with dark colonial pasts, where 'ethnic', international or world arts are placed apart. Unquestionably, anthropology museums remain arenas of contestation, still grappling with ideas of decolonization through the politics and poetics of display. Since the early 1980s, contemporary art and artists have entered into this fray, inserting other voices, media and counterpoints into the anthropological frame. In parallel, curators and artists have engaged with different aspects of anthropology in the process of making exhibitions in art museums. In these differentiated exhibition sites, the convergence of contemporary art and anthropology can be seen to challenge disciplinary prejudices such as the dominant discourse of indigeneity with its focus on contemporary 'indigenous' art. Rather than creating a permanent grey zone, contemporary art in such cases presents itself as an agitation or even irritation that seeks a response. This panel seeks to encourage dialogue on contemporary art and anthropology through an examination of recent exhibitions and projects.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Curating a Museum of Others: contemporary art and curatorial resistance in the Pitt Rivers Museum's Australian art displays

Author: Christopher Morton (University of Oxford) email

Short abstract

In 2017 the Pitt Rivers Museum changed its Australian art displays to include photo artworks by Bidjara artist Christian Thompson. The paper explores the curatorial tensions in the redisplay and the wider issues it raises about integrating contemporary indigenous art in the anthropology museum.

Long abstract

In June 2017 the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) changed a case in its Australian art displays to include three large photo artworks by Bidjara artist Christian Thompson. From 2009 the display had contained copies of ground art designs painted around 1901 by the anthropologist Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929), along with information about Spencer and other expedition members. The PRM had been working closely with Thompson since 2011, and had curated an exhibition of his work, made in response to its historic photograph collections, in 2012. So when in 2016 he launched a new series of artworks titled Museum of Others that directly referenced the PRM's history, several of its key historical figures, and issues of representation, colonization, and power, I felt that we had to acquire this work for the collection, exhibit it, and undertake detailed audience evaluation about the redisplay. However, replacing Spencer's paintings with Thompson's artwork was a highly controversial process within the PRM, with some colleagues resistant to the proposal on the grounds that contemporary art wasn't right for the displays. Was artwork that looked Aboriginal (albeit copies made by a European anthropologist) more acceptable in an ethnographic museum than contemporary art than didn't look "Aboriginal" despite having been made by an indigenous person? Such questions lie at the heart of the grey zone between contemporary art and ethnography for historic institutions such as the PRM, and raise discomforting questions about where indigeneity is located - in an artist's identity or in artistic style?

Unceded Territories: Art, Agitation and Upset on the Northwest Coast

Author: Nicola Levell (University of British Columbia) email

Short abstract

This paper will situate the exhibition Unceded Territories: Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun (2016) in relation to other contemporary art installations at the UBC Museum of Anthropology to question how they have upset, politicized and even legitimized the institution's narratives, practices and spaces.

Long abstract

In a panel discussion at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1998—associated with the exhibition Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast—the outspoken Coast Salish artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun addressed anthropologists and curators from the UBC Museum of Anthropology: "What are you people even doing here?...This is a gallery for contemporary art so what does this have to do with any of you? You have your death house out at UBC, there is no reason for you to be here. Go back to it!"

For decades, Yuxweluptun openly expressed his disdain for MOA, referring to it as an "Indian morgue"—an institution that shamefully displays the powerful spiritual expressions of his and others' cultural heritage. Yet, in 2016, with his consent, MOA mounted a major career retrospective of the artist's work: Unceded Territories: Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. Attracting tens of thousands of visitors, the exhibition consisted of over 60 artworks, including large scale paintings, drawings and multi-media assemblages, which vividly and provocatively addressed the neo-colonial realities of living in BC, the politics of land, the abuses and damaging multigenerational effects of the Indian Residential School system, the injustice of the Indian Act and other institutions of exploitation. This was no grey zone, but a site of unapologetic political agitation and aesthetic action. This paper will situate Unceded Territories in relation to a body of contemporary art exhibitions at MOA to question how they have interrupted, upset, politicized, complicated and even legitimized the institution's narratives, practices and spaces.

Contemporary Asian Art in Anthropology Museums

Author: Fuyubi Nakamura (University of British Columbia) email

Short abstract

There is an ongoing discussion around the relationship between contemporary art and anthropology, often in the context of decolonization. Asian art, especially contemporary Asian art, however, presents a different challenge to curating exhibitions at anthropological museums.

Long abstract

The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia or MOA is known for its Pacific Northwest Coast First Nations collections, but is perhaps less known as a museum of world arts and cultures. The Asian collection is the largest collection at the museum, about forty percent of the total holdings, but is given a small space within the permanent gallery. Special exhibitions and programs thus provide an alternative opportunity to introduce Asian arts and cultures at MOA. This paper focuses on two exhibitions on Asia I have curated since I started working at MOA in 2014.

Since many Asian cultures possess highly developed artistic traditions of their own, such production was until recently considered a matter for art historians rather than anthropologists. Asian art, especially contemporary Asian art presents a different challenge to curating exhibitions at anthropological museums.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.