Vassar Stories

A new course in American Studies explores the importance of Indigenous art and its marginalization by the mainstream art world

Professor McGlennen (center) and students in the gallery

Too often, and for far too long, Native American artists have been largely ignored or trivialized by museums and art historians. Often, if their work is acknowledged at all, it is understood as ethnological “trinkets” or archaeological “curios” and not as the dynamic bodies of art created by Native American artists.

In a course she designed and is offering for the first time this fall, assistant professor of English and Native American studies Molly McGlennen is hoping to help change this perception.

“Museums have marginalized Native American artists, often lumping them all together as ‘Indians’ rather than artists from particular tribal nations with specific worldviews, homelands and relationships to colonialism,” McGlennen says. “This class confronts those stereotypes and myths and explores how they came about.”

McGlennen, who helped to design Vassar’s new correlate in Native American studies, says her class, called “Decolonizing the Exhibition: Critical Approaches to Contemporary Indigenous Art,” differs significantly from most art history classes. “Our class looks at the artwork through a Native American studies perspective.  It’s about Indigenous people’s relationships with museums and the broader art world.”

To acquaint the 15 students in the class with contemporary Native American artists, McGlennen is assigning each of them a specific drawing or print and having them write wall labels for the piece both for the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and for an accompanying  “virtual” exhibit online. The class-curated exhibit at the Art Center opens with a reception Dec. 5 and will run through Feb. 2.

The works on display at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center are being loaned to the museum by Edd Guarino, a retired public school teacher from Westchester County who has collected more than 1,000 paintings, drawings, pottery and other artwork created by Native American artists. He has donated many of these works to Vassar.

Guarino said he chose Vassar as the recipient of his gifts because he knew the collection would be used to enlighten students about the neglect shown by many in the art world to these artists. “Native American art is often relegated to the back of museums; there’s a gaping hole in the story many museums are telling,” Guarino says.

Art history major Kristina Arike says she decided to enroll in McGlennen’s class after taking a course in early American art. “Native American art was only touched on briefly, and I wanted to learn more,” Arike says.

She says McGlennen gave the class a “crash course in Native American history to put some of the other things we’re learning in context.” Arike says she is planning a career in the art world when she graduates, “and this is an important component, learning how to break down a lot of the misconceptions about Native American art.”

McGlennen says one of the most common reactions she gets from her courses is, ‘”Why haven’t I read this before in my history books?” “The answer is by leaving it out, western society can justify colonial conquest and violence,” she says, “and that leads us to ask, ‘what is one’s responsibility to this omission?’”

Arike says the course has helped her gain a proper perspective on the significance of Native American art.  “I’m learning a lot about sovereignty, politically and culturally,” she says. “By recognizing their art and learning how important it is, Native people’s sovereignty becomes a real issue and not just a concept.”

—Larry Hertz

Posted Friday, November 1, 2013