Workshop Reflections: Stephanie Tara Schwartz on Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies

Alex Nahwegahbow leads a tour of "Temporal Re-Imaginings" at the Âjagemô gallery. (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

Alex Nahwegahbow leads a tour of “Temporal Re-Imaginings” at the Âjagemô gallery. (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies, the title of the Thinking Through the Museum (TTTM) team’s 2nd workshop held in Ottawa on April 15-16, 2016, was a mouthful to utter and a brain-full to unpack. The three-day workshop brought us to the Canadian Museum of History, the Âjagemô gallery at the Canada Council for the Arts, and an indigenous walking tour of Ottawa. In her keynote lecture, Dr. Amy Lonetree challenged us to think about how museums can become decolonizing sites by centering indigenous worldviews (such the inclusion of the “Blood Memory” gallery at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishanabe Culture and Lifeways) and incorporating the difficult history of colonialism into contemporary exhibition practice. Roundtable discussions at Carleton University invited faculty, students, curators, and community to grapple with decolonizing theory and practice in and beyond classrooms, museums and galleries. From the enthusiastic participation of everyone involved, it was evident that the workshop was a successful endeavor in conversation with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report.

We call upon the federal government to provide funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, in collaboration with Aboriginal people, a national review of museum polices and best practices to determine the level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to make recommendations.
(Article 67, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Final Report and Calls to Action, 8).

Decolonization is not a Metaphor

Throughout the workshop I wondered at the use of the term “decolonizing”. While the workshop focused on the settler-colonial context of Canada, Drs. Erica Lehrer, Ming Tiampo and Monica Patterson reminded us that decolonizing is one subset of a critical museology that should also build solidarity between activist curators engaging with historical trauma in multiple locations. Decolonization historically involves violent forms of resistance and the formation of independent nation states that themselves create new systems of oppression and thus should be seriously contemplated and clarified when applied to pedagogy in educational institutions.

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As Tuck and Yang claim:

Decolonization as metaphor allows people to equivocate these contradictory decolonial desires because it turns decolonization into an empty signifier to be filled by any track towards liberation. In reality, the tracks walk all over land/people in settler contexts. Though the details are not fixed or agreed upon, in our view, decolonization in the settler colonial context must involve the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have always already been differently understood and enacted; that is, all of the land, and not just symbolically… Settler colonialism and its decolonization implicates and unsettles everyone. (“Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” 2012: 7)

How is the TTTM team defining decolonization? And further, how will the group work through not only difficult knowledge, but the visceral experiences of colonized subjects? One participant in the workshop brought this up as the last comment of the session: we are being so polite to each other at this workshop, but how can indigenous people bear the everyday violence of colonialism? The response by one panelist was to describe how her heart sped up at this comment, how the anger within her was raging. If we follow Fanon, colonization and decolonization are violent, traumatic processes that can cannot be achieved alone by educators or curators even with the best intentions. Decolonization can only be a massive, unsettling, historical process. Is it too much to ask for national museums, such as the Canadian Museum of History or the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, to take on decolonial methods – that must by definition unsettle their own foundations – literally the land on which these buildings stand, and the national narrative which they are mandated to support – without the complete restructuring of Canada as a nation-state? Can decolonial pedagogies exist without complete revolutionary aims?

Teaching by Example

Given these challenging questions, I observed three “decolonial pedagogies” that unsettled colonial relations in the space of the gallery and the classroom.

  1. Unsettling the gallery

Alexandra Kahsenni:io Nahwegahbow (Anishinaabe and Kanien’kehá:ka, Whitefish River First Nation), a Ph.D. student in Cultural Mediations at Carleton University, gave workshop participants a guided tour of Temporal Re-Imaginings, the exhibit she curated at the Âjagemô art space at the Canada Council for the Arts. Our bodies filled the space which is a main hallway through the first floor of the building. As she led us through the amazing selection of paintings and photography and paused to tell us why each work was significant to her, passerbys had to weave in and around our group, sometimes being drawn in to listen or look at the paintings. This struck me as a decolonial act. Alex claimed the space [literally the land on which we were walking], disrupted everyday relations and centred an indigenous point of view – her own, and those of the artists – of this acclaimed and symbolic Canadian space.

  1. Privileging the voices of indigenous female students
    Sylvia Dueck (left) and Alex Nahwegahbow (right). (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

    Sylvia Dreaver (Dueck) (left) and Alex Nahwegahbow (right). (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

The second morning of the workshop began with an interview between Sylvia Dreaver (Dueck) (Ininew from the Mistawasis First Nation), an undergraduate student in the History of Art Honours program at University of Winnipeg and Aboriginal Program Guide at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and Alex Nahwegabow about her exhibit. Scheduling this exchange as the opening session of the public day of the workshop set a structuring frame for the entire workshop. Hearing Dueck and Nahwegabow engage on issues such as why they chose to work within Canadian national institutions rather than boycott them outright, and the pressure of being a “token” Indigenous perspective highlighted practical challenges and everyday negotiations that each woman has to go through to do her work. I read this as evidence of the commitment of the workshop organizers to take decolonizing methodologies seriously.

  1. Reclaiming land
    Jaime Koebel leads an "Indigenous Walk." (photo credit Lauren Bosc)

    Jaime Koebel leads an “Indigenous Walk.” (photo credit Lauren Bosc)

While the entire workshop was thought-provoking and stimulating, concluding with Jamie Koebel’s Indigenous Walking tour was poignant. One of my favourite stops was a totem pole supposedly given to the government of Canada by the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation. Koebel invited us to wonder about the inscription of the plaque – and whether the exchange had really been so simple and apolitical. The very process of walking across the land, across different paths that we might otherwise not have walked and seeing the array of new relations that Koebel (a Métis artist from Alberta) has established through her indigenous walks in Ottawa was in keeping with what Glen Coulthard calls grounded normativity:

…Indigenous struggles against capitalist imperialism are best understood as struggles oriented around the question of land—struggles not only for land, but also deeply informed by what the land as a mode of reciprocal relationship (which is itself informed by place-based practices and associated forms of knowledge) ought to teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and our surroundings in a respectful, nondominating and nonexploitative way. The ethical framework provided by these place-based practices and associated forms of knowledge is what I call ‘grounded normativity.’ (Red Skin, White Masks, 2014: 60)

Takeaways

As I prepare to teach the third cohort of student guides for the Museum of Jewish Montreal’s summer walking tour program this May, the questions raised in this workshop weigh on my mind. Specifically: how should museums dedicated to immigrant histories such as my own avoid reproducing and acknowledge the colonial precedents set by museums before us? Can we incorporate decolonial pedagogies to centre the complex relations between different peoples and this land that we live with, rather than reaffirm singular national narratives? I was also struck by the role of mentorship and the formal and informal networks that allow young indigenous artists and students, especially women, to flourish. How can funding organizations, universities, museums and galleries do better to insure that there is more sustainable support for these networks and programs to encourage artists and curators in their careers?

In thinking through these questions I summarize some of the strategies shared by participants at the workshop: we should approach our museum or academic work with humility, to not impose any one interpretation over others, to cultivate a constant openness to learning and to take responsibility for the difficult histories of diverse peoples rather than to assume we are separate or innocent from the the oppressions that happen to others. I am already looking forward to the TTTM group’s next workshop in September at Concordia University in Montreal.

***Stephanie Tara Schwartz is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the Curating and Public Scholarship Lab in the Department of History at Concordia University, Research Director of the Museum of Jewish Montreal, and co-editor of Canadian Jewish Studies/Études juives canadiennes.

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