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Embroidery, India

Native art in British Columbia and Norway

Øivind Fuglerud


The present CIM component explores the classification and presentation of objects produced by native communities as ‘art’ and ‘artifact’ (art – culture) in ethnographic museums and galleries in British Columbia and Norway. The underlying assumption of this research component is that to understand the transit, transition, and transformation of objects it is, in James Clifford’s words ‘important to analyze how powerful discriminations made at particular moments constitute the general system of objects within which valued artifacts circulate and make sense’ (Clifford 1988). The traffic of objects between the zone of art and the zone of artifact – that is, the ‘transition’ of objects – is to a large extent directed by people working in institutional arenas like galleries and museums. To look at how institutions relate to aesthetic objects and their producers and the way they choose to present these objects to the public is one way of approaching these discriminations.

Against this backdrop two questions are of particular interest to this research component:

The first concerns the way objects are exhibited in ethnographic museums. Exhibiting other cultures has in the last decades become increasingly fraught with dilemmas. While museums of all kinds have had to re-orient themselves as a result of the intertwined processes of increased globalization and intensified identity politics, these challenges have been more visible and more deeply felt in ethnographic museums when compared to other types of museums. Burdened by their colonial legacy, the display of objects as art has been seen as one way to achieve a break with ‘the ethnographic’ model as an outdated mode of thinking and exhibiting. In museum after museum, dioramas and reconstructed environments have been taken down and replaced by individually exhibited objects of beauty. This new focus on art in ethnographic exhibitions is not without its own challenges. As pointed out by Dias (2008: 306), it is one thing to advocate the equal value of human potentials; to proclaim the equal value of what they have made of this potential is something else. Firstly, there is the issue of the relationship between those who produce aesthetic objects and those who exhibit. ‘World heritage’, writes Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, ‘is predicated on the idea that those who produce culture do so by dint of their “diversity”, while those who come to own those cultural assets as world heritage do so by dint of their “humanity”‘(2006: 183). This distinction between those who have cultural identities to be strengthened by heritage preservation and those who do not resembles on a global scale the constellation between marked minority practices and unmarked majority practices familiar from European nation-states. Secondly, it is a relevant question to what extent a focus on art is a good strategy to promote equal dignity. The focus on aesthetics seems to imply that it is the equality of artistic production that paves the way for the equality of peoples and societies – this is not unproblematic. It raises the question of who sets the standards, but it also raises a question of the worth of groups and societies which are not exhibited but only represented in the collections confined to museum store rooms.

The second research question concerns the political role of museums. In the last decade or so there has within the field of museum-research been an interest in museums not only reflecting at a given moment a particular state of the world but in a more systematic sense contributing to forming this world, acting as historical agents. The question posed here is: In what ways have museums in BC and Norway been important to the organizing of particular discourses on- and practices of native art; discourses and practices which may be assumed to impact on the choice of objects to be exhibited in these museums and the way they are displayed? Of particular interest in this respect within the present research component are Museum of Anthropology (MoA) in Vancouver and Ethnographic Museum in Oslo. From the 1950s onwards MoA developed a long-standing and deep involvement not only in matters of First Nation art as such in British Columbia, but in the social and political processes to which this art is linked in different ways. This involvement provides a fascinating case with considerable historical depth for discussing the art – anthropology issue, and for discussing the role of ethnographic museums as such. Central to it is MoA’s former active role in projecting a particular image of the First Nation communities in British Columbia as on the brink of social and cultural extinction, and through this the possibility for the Canadian government to appropriate ‘primitive’ motives in forging symbols of a modern cultural identity different from the country’s former colonial masters. In Oslo the Ethnographic museum by transferring its Sami collections to the Norwegian Folk museum helped to open for a conceptualization of Sami culture and aesthetics as dynamic and contemporary, rather than as a relic of the past. In one of the first thorough reviews of Sami art, we find the understanding of Sami art as the cultural expression of a ‘living Paleolithicum’, having much in common with tribal art in Siberia, North America and Greenland. While not lacking in racial orientalism, what sets a scene different from the one in British Columbia is that natives and their art is seen as still alive and well among us. These different conceptualizations of native culture have served to position native artists in British Columbia and Norway differently. In BC ethnic art has become accepted as part of the regional and/or national art world and has become a niche for aspiring artists of First Nation background. Consequently we find a proliferation of ethnic images circulating inside and outside galleries and museums. The role of ethnographic museums like MoA has become to select, conserve and display masterpieces; to uphold criteria of quality, preventing the total collapse into trivia. In Norway the political struggle in which a number of Sami artists were involved in the 1970s and 1980s has to a large extent been successful. The Sami parliament was established in 1989, and has gradually taken over responsibility for the Sami cultural sector, including Sami museums in the North. These museums hold many of the works produced by the younger generation of Sami artists. There are indications that the embracement of their works by regional Sami museums and political interests is experienced many Sami artists today as a caging-in of their artistic activity. None of them see themselves– or can be characterized – as ‘ethnic artists’. 


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