On Love, Dialogue, and Decolonization: A Research Assistant’s Reflection on Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies

By Alex Nahwegahbow**

Sylvia Dreaver (Dueck), left, with Alex Nahwegahbow, right.

Sylvia Dreaver (Dueck), left, with Alex Nahwegahbow, right.

One of the great things about being a graduate student is the opportunity to assist your mentors, peers, and colleagues on exciting collaborative research projects like this one. The Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop, part of a partnership development project called Thinking through the Museum: Difficult Knowledge in Public, took place over two days in Ottawa in April earlier this year. It brought together a number of scholars, artists, curators, and community members for an important conversation about the need for the decolonization of museum practices and exhibition spaces. The days were filled with discussions that made me feel an immense appreciation to live in a moment when this kind of exchange is possible, and I still have about a million thoughts and questions whirring around in my mind nearly half a year later.

Since the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop took place, I had the opportunity to act as a Research Assistant for a separate collaborative research project – one that explores global art movements and focuses particularly on the multiple art histories of Indigenous and colonized peoples that have been misrepresented or entirely left out of the Western canon. This second project brought me on a to visit South Africa, a beautiful country that also shares an extremely difficult history.

I suppose I’m referring to this second recent project here in reflection of the first because my experiences and the conversations that were had in one, very naturally seem to feed into those that occurred in the other, and vice-versa. During one of the interviews I assisted with on art projects in South Africa, the writing of Paulo Freire was raised, and over the last few weeks I’ve been revisiting his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I hadn’t picked up in a few years.

What initially struck me so strongly about this text was the way Freire very honestly and openly writes about education, freedom, dialogue, and very poignantly, about love. To be sure, love is not a word that I encountered often in the texts of Western theory and cultural studies that I began reading early on in my graduate school journey. It didn’t really seem that the concept of love had much of a place in ‘serious’ critical discussion, let alone in the academy. Scholarly discourse can certainly seem a bit resistant to people talking about quotetheir personal feelings and emotions – one is often encouraged to write from a place that is objective or impartial. But to put it flatly, when I think and write about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples and the representation of difficult knowledges in sites of public history, I respond to it personally and emotionally because it is personal and emotional. And so far the best way that I’ve found to communicate the complexity and genuine need for initiatives that promote healing, recovery, and decolonization is through understandings and teachings about love.

Let me try to explain this a bit further.


In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire writes about the important role of education in promoting empowered self-awareness – an awareness that stems from the very foundational understanding that as human beings we are not separate from this world, but are inextricably part of it – forever contributing to its ongoing creation and re-creation. This thought may seem very simple, straightforward and perhaps obvious, but when you live in a world where you see very little of yourself and your people represented, it can become very easy to feel powerless and sometimes invisible. So the moment that I read Freire for the first time, the notion that each person, as part of the world, contributes to it and therefore possesses the potential to enact change within it was a very significant one for me.

Freire explains that we contribute to the world through our use of words – and in seeking to reach out and communicate with other beings we generate dialogue – which in itself is an act of creation and making. Genuine and meaningful dialogue however, according to Freire, cannot exist in the absence of love – “profound love for the world and for people.”[i]

In Anishinaabe teachings, love – zaagidewin – is one of the gifts of the Seven Grandfathers/Grandmothers. It speaks of having an open heart, and of allowing oneself the ability to genuinely give and accept love.  Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, in referencing the works of a great Anishinaabe storyteller Basil Johnston, describes the act of story- and relationship-making among ourselves and with others as an act of love. Through the use of our words in story, by seeking to reach out in dialogue with other beings, we enact these teachings of love. He writes,

Love… is a relationship filled with respect for, patience with, and responsibilities to another person. It’s about listening and learning, even if the person you are communicating with is not doing the same. The question, undoubtedly, is how you can love another being when they are so drastically different… K’zaugin [Love] can inspire us to continue to tell each other our perspectives, share food with family members and relations, and join together in times of struggle and resistance. K’zaugin can assist us in learning how to speak to one another in our many languages and to listen, to always listen. K’zaugin is what can maintain and define our many responsibilities to one another, and to ensure that we speak to each other with honesty, commitment and truth.[ii]

In many ways this understanding of love resonates quite strongly with how I think about the work of decolonization. Decolonization comes from a place of deep and profound love. It arises out of a very human need and desire to speak our words and to reach out to other persons and beings in the ongoing creation and re-creation of the world. It recognizes that life emerges dialogically through our different connections, relations and entanglements with others. It comes from a place that understands the responsibilities of listening and telling the truth and of honouring your word even when it makes you uncomfortable.

Dr. Amy Lonetree delivering her keynote lecture during the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop

Dr. Amy Lonetree delivering her keynote lecture during the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop

When Dr. Amy Lonetree delivered her keynote at the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop, she spoke of a decolonizing museum practice that must involve assisting Indigenous communities in addressing the legacies of historical unresolved grief. As part of this process she argues that museums have the responsibility of truth-telling, and specifically speaking the hard truths of colonization in an effort to promote critical self-awareness, healing, and understanding. She indicates that museums have the potential to become sites of decolonization by privileging Indigenous perspectives, knowledges, and worldviews. In the introductory chapter of her book, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, Dr. Lonetree refers to scholar Winona Wheeler’s articulation of the process of decolonization: “Decolonization is about empowerment,” she writes, “a belief that situations can be transformed, a belief and trust in our own peoples’ values and abilities to make change.”[iii] According to this reading, decolonization is something that begins from within, perhaps through an acceptance of self-love – one that nurtures the confidence that our knowledge systems can act as sound guiding principles for ethical museum practice.

It is this deep decolonial inside that needs to be cared for. When I sat down with my friend, colleague and fellow Research Assistant Sylvia Dreaver (Dueck) for our conversation during the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop, we spoke a bit about our shared experiences as Indigenous women who work in academia, museums, and galleries in urban centres, spaces that can – and historically have – misrepresented or entirely ignored Indigenous presences and experiences. This lack of visibility can have an enormous impact, and can be quite harmful. As a young person who grew up in the Ottawa area, where my little brother and I were the only Native kids in our school, I never really saw myself or reflections of my Indigenous inside in spaces outside of our family home. My parents always made sure I knew my roots and would often tell me proudly that I came from a people of immense strength and resilience, yet for some reason or another I began to feel ashamed of who I was and just wanted to be like everyone and everything else that I saw and heard around me when I wasn’t at home. From what I’ve come to understand through conversations with other Indigenous peoples, this feeling is not uncommon, and that’s a real problem.

For what reasons would a Native kid with a strong Onkwehonwe and Anishinaabe foundation at home still feel at such an early age that in certain spaces being different meant not being heard?

In working towards positive social change, author and activist bell hooks writes of the need for efforts to be rooted in what she refers to as an ethic of love.[iv] To achieve this, hooks argues for the importance of looking critically both inward and outward to learn the truth about how systems of oppression operate. This awareness, she writes, is central to the process of love as the practice of freedom. If as Dr. Lonetree has urged, museums can uphold their responsibilities to tell the truth and address difficult knowledge and difficult history, then they perhaps have a great role to play in generating the kind of critical awareness and freedom that hooks describes. Rooted in a love ethic, a decolonial quote4museum practice may also keep future generations of Indigenous people in mind, and will aim to create spaces where they will see themselves, and not be afraid to be heard.

Anishinaabeg writer and scholar Leanne Simpson has written powerfully on Anishinaabeg-centred stories and songs of love in her recent work, Islands of Decolonial Love – a title derived from an interview with Dominican American writer Junot Diaz who spoke of a kind of love that his characters longed for – what he describes as, “the only kind of love that could liberate them from that horrible legacy of colonial violence.”[v] If these kinds of empowering and Indigenous-centered methodologies of love can be used to understand and give voice to our experiences – as Anishinaabeg writers like Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Leanne Simpson have shown – I wonder if perhaps the same can be applied to our efforts in decolonizing museums, where we likewise aim to cultivate meaningful, genuine, and transformative dialogue.

So you can call me emotional if you want to, but I’m building trust that practices grounded in Indigenous principles have the potential to offer the kind of decolonial love that we long for, and can perhaps contribute to the ongoing creation and re-creation of a world that Paulo Freire also envisioned, one that is “more round, less ugly, and more just.”[vi]


[i] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergam Ramos, 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000; Originally published 1970), 89.

[ii] Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, “K’zaugin: Storing Ourselves into Life,” in Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World Through Stories, eds. Jill Doerfler, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press; Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013), 95-96.

[iii] Winona Lu-Ann Stevenson, Decolonizing Tribal Histories, PhD diss., (Berkeley: University of California, 2000), 212;  Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 9.

[iv] bell hooks, “Love as the practice of freedom,” in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (New York, London: Routledge, 1994), 289-298.

[v] Paula M. L. Moya, “The Search for Decolonial Love: An Interview with Junot Diaz,” Boston Review, June 26, 2012, https://bostonreview.net/books-ideas/paula-ml-moya-decolonial-love-interview-junot-d%C3%ADaz

[vi] Donaldo Macedo, “Introduction,” in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergam Ramos, 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000; Originally published 1970), 26.

**Alexandra K. Nahwegahbow is a PhD student at Carleton University in the Cultural Mediations program at the Institute of Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture. She is Anishinaabe and Kanien’keha:ka, and a member of Whitefish River First Nation with roots in Kahnawake. Her research examines Indigenous visual and material culture from the Great Lakes region with a focus on childcare practices and the significance of family, community and youth. She is an emerging curator and recently completed the exhibition Temporal Re-Imaginings for Canada Council for the Arts. Alex is fascinated by stories, oral history and object agency, and has a strong interest in community engagement initiatives and the Indigenization of museum and gallery spaces.