Last week, I posted the first of this two-part series about the intrepid and dedicated group of students from my ART 4763/5763 History of Native American Art and Material Culture course who put together an exhibition for the OSU Museum of Art last spring. Volunteering to get involved above and beyond their coursework, these students—Roxanne Beason, Calli Heflin, Katelynn Pipestem, Chestiké Williams, and Amanda Zimmerman—experienced the challenge of curating Native American art from soup to nuts.
The resulting exhibition, “The Southwest in Motion: Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi Paintings from the Charles Little Collection,” opened on June 11, 2019. The closing reception, featuring guest speakers Dr. Farina King and Myron Beeson, will be Thursday, September 5, from 5-7pm. The show will be on view through September 14, 2019. Last week and this week on the blog, I recap our curatorial process, inviting you behind the scenes.
Conversations about decolonization have taught us that Indigenous communities and voices should be prioritized in any museum exhibition involving their cultures—but although we had several Native students in the class, none identified culturally with the tribes represented in the exhibition. I wrote to my colleague at the Edmon Low Library, Julie Pearson-Little Thunder, to ask her for suggestions of local artists and historians who might be willing to help us out. Without a budget from the museum, I was initially asking for volunteers, which would not have been my preference, as it continues a pattern of institutional exploitation of marginalized voices. I began to explore alternative funding sources, but because our timeline was short, I initially reached out to people with the open admission that my students and I were dependent upon their goodwill and generosity.
The first person I spoke with was Dr. Farina King, a history professor at Northeastern State University. She was immediately enthusiastic about connecting with us, sharing her work and engaging thoughtfully with ours. Meanwhile, graduate student Roxanne Beason was in conversation with artist Myron Beeson, whose work is in the exhibition. He offered her insight into his painting, but also offered to come and share his knowledge and skill—both as an artist and as a traditional flute player—with museum visitors at the opening reception.
After we had put together a checklist and drafted exhibition labels, we sent our work to Dr. King in order to give her a sense of the exhibition’s direction. We met with her via Skype after class one afternoon, and I invited all the students in the class to participate in the conversation, whether or not they had volunteered for the exhibition. One of the students, Robert Streeter, observed afterwards that the conversation helped him connect what we learned in class about the history of Native people to the museum world. “We talked about the negative effects of colonialism and how to better show respect towards the Native American art in the exhibition,” he recalled, expressing appreciation for Dr. King’s interest in the project and the ideas she offered to students about connecting history and culture.
Research and Writing
Because we were all learning together, our research and writing was a group process. We met after class for up to three hours a week, sharing library books, bouncing ideas back and forth, and editing texts. Questions were raised: why is so much writing about Native American art about form rather than iconography? What information is appropriate to share with a general audience, and how have understandings of sacred and/or culturally private knowledge changed over time? How can we increase the number of Diné (Navajo), Hopi, and Pueblo perspectives that we’re bringing to bear on our research and writing through research as well as community engagement? How do we evaluate scholarly texts written twenty, forty, or eighty years ago?
Dr. Trever Lee Holland and I took responsibility for writing the introductory text for the show, based on the students’ research. But before we could do that, we needed a title. For me, coming up with a title is the most difficult part of any curatorial process—but thanks to years of teaching, I’ve come up with a strategy for collaborative title-making that generates a high level of conceptual conversation, as well as a thoughtful approach to the poetics of phrasing.
Once we had a title with which we were all happy—“The Southwest in Motion”—Trever and I drafted the introductory text. We sent it to our third community consultant, professor Marwin Begaye, at the University of Oklahoma. His acute editorial comments helped us polish our language and clarify our intent in the essay, and reminded me that when it comes to any sort of writing, more eyes are always better.
Visitors to the Exhibition
“The Southwest in Motion” has had many visitors over the course of its run, but one group stood out for me. The OSU Museum’s Associate Curator of Education, Cat de Araújo, reported that the Oklahoma Future Native Leaders visited the exhibition, which served as the focal point of a two-hour program with 33 teens from across the state of Oklahoma. In a workshop that engaged the students’ bodies and poses with those depicted in the paintings, they discovered how movement and migration affect identity in their own lives as well as in the artworks and throughout history.
Thanks to the generous support of American Studies at OSU, I was ultimately able to offer all three of our community consultants a modest honorarium in return for their help with “The Southwest in Motion”—but it is characteristic of our academic and artistic communities in Oklahoma that they all offered to collaborate without any expectation of compensation. I hope you will join us on September 5 to help celebrate the culmination of this wonderful exhibition, the students whose work made it possible, and the community that supported their learning experience.