AMAM Acknowledges Histories of Displacement

Editor’s note: An article on this topic was initially published in the Review on Oct. 15 and erroneously included several inaccuracies. This article has been rewritten to reflect these corrections. The Review deeply regrets this error.

On Sept. 15, the Allen Memorial Art Museum launched its Dis/Possession project which explores the way that museums interact with Indigenous histories, art, and communities. The year-long project began with its first set of installations investigating the ways that canonical American art propagates harmful settler colonial myths.

Assistant Curator of European and American Art Alexandra Letvin and Assistant Curator of Academic Programs Hannah Wirta Kinney created the project as a introspective look into the AMAM itself, examining the inherently exploitative nature of modern museums.

“The fall semester focuses on an American context,” Letvin said. “So for those works, we’re really asking the question of, ‘What role does canonical American art play in histories of dispossession?’ Then in the spring, we turn to a more global context and think more broadly.”

Dis/Possession operates on a statement of guiding principles written by the AMAM staff in 2020 that analyzes the role of museums in the problematic telling of Indigenous peoples and their stories.

“The AMAM exists — and has been able to grow and thrive — as a direct result of histories of dispossession,” the statement reads. “We recognize the role that images and museums have played in the erasure of Indigenous peoples and their stories, and seek to counteract this through our work.”

According to Letvin, this acknowledgement impacted the curation of Dis/Possession.

“For us, the plural ‘histories’ was very important because for museums, it’s not just about one type of material,” Letvin said. “We wanted to probe more deeply into our institutional history and our collecting practices and our curatorial practices and educational practices.”

Letvin and Kinney deliberately chose the three works currently on display for their inadvertent erasure and dissociation from Indigenous history.

Arguably the most famous work currently on display for Dis/Possession is Andy Warhol’s screenprint Sitting Bull, from his 1986 Cowboys and Indians series. The piece takes a photograph of Hunkpapa Lakota leader Tatanka Iyotake ‘Sitting Bull’ and reimagines him through layers of bright colors and emboldened contrasting lines — typical Warhol fare. The original photograph of Sitting Bull was taken sometime in the 1880s, when he was best known for his victory over General George Cluster at Little Bighorn.

According to Kinney, though, Warhol’s depiction strips Sitting Bull of his importance to Lakota history and portrays a mainstream and popularized version of Indigenous figures.

“The Warhol transposes this image of Sitting Bull, who was a revolutionary leader for the Lakota and was very aware of his image and how it worked in the American press,” Kinney said. “And he had a lot of agency in how his image was reproduced, but Warhol then appropriates it and turns [him] into this pop [art] icon — in the same style that he does soup cans and Mickey Mouse and all of these kinds of things. So, how does this really take away from the agency that Sitting Bull had as an individual and as a leader?”

Questions and critiques like these, however, are rarely asked by museum staff and patrons; works of art are rarely placed in the limelight for their problematic connotations. To that end, the curatorial process was unusual for Letvin and Kinney.

“We are approaching works in a way that’s very unusual for curators, and we’ve been struggling with that a lot,” Letvin said. “Usually when you go to a museum and you read a label, the label starts by telling you what you’re looking at, and it encourages you to look at something. It suggests, in a sense, that what you see is what you get: ‘If you look really closely, you will understand.’ What we have been trying to do in this installation is to push beyond that and say, ‘These images present one version of history; what were the choices that were made by the artist in presenting that history?’ We can now recognize [these choices] as being quite violent, they can be very harmful. So how can we adjust our practice and how we talk about these works, how we write about them in labels to encourage visitors, to not just think about what you see, but also what you don’t see?”

This process also involved a lot of introspection for Letvin and Kinney, who found that learning about personal limitations and naming them became integral to the process.

“I would say the other thing that I’ve been coming to realize with this is when I talk about it, and I say the things that I don’t see, or the things that I haven’t seen, really comes from my perspective as a white woman who has been trained in Western art history,” Kinney said. “I don’t see particular things because I was never taught how to see those, but other viewers might come in and see these works in a very different way. So coming to terms with my own blindness to these issues, I think has been a really important part of the process.”

A project like Dis/Possession also serves as an investment in a dynamic historical conversation. For the AMAM, this meant developing a series of public programs and dialogues. The deliberate inclusion of a chorus of voices to develop this project really demonstrates  the inherently conversational and ongoing nature of land acknowledgement.

According to Kinney, there is an implicit finality in museum installations; curators get the final word — the final interpretation. Dis/Possession is unique in that it relies on the viewer’s voice, and the conversation is ongoing.

“I would say that often exhibitions are planned and presented as the final idea, right?” she said. “So we are taking a different model, which is, we don’t have it all figured out. This installation [is about] the conversations that we have with students in classes, in the dialogue groups, and we’ve been connecting with academic departments and offices around campus who are interested in land acknowledgements. The installation serves not to be the final statement, but to be the reason for a conversation —it’s the provocation.”

Dis/Possession will be on display in the Northwest Ambulatory of the AMAM till Aug. 7, 2022; however, the works currently installed are expected to change by spring.