Erica Lord, Artifact Piece, Revisited, performed in 2008 at the National Museum of the American Indian. Lord is Athabascan and Iñupiaq.
This performance reflects the ever-present theme of the exhibition of peoples and lived materials, that is such a conflict in indigenous aesthetic issues. For centuries Western bodies of academia meticulously “collected”, “gathered” (to use the conspicuous terms) materials for exhibition of the many “exotic” and “primitive” nations of the world. Such collections then added prestige to the visual rhetoric that the non-Native used/s to define and confine “Native”, for it is hard to imagine white collectors not having the colourful, popular picture of “Native” in mind.
It is hard enough for objects that are defined by their use and by their makers - clothing, ceremonial garb, baskets, boats - to convey a people when they are not being lived in. But this work also shines a light on the more insidious topic in the exhibiting of peoples - the active collection and exhibition of human remains. The constant fight to repatriate human remains in museum and university collections around the world has often ignited opposition from the scientific community, that I can’t speak to (other than to say how can any individual or body, regardless of their purpose, claim to have rights to a person).
But let’s look at this from a curatorial perspective, for the vast majority of these remains are not actively studied. What, could exhibiting, collecting, hoarding away these stolen people seek to accomplish beside upholding the idea of indigenous cultures as stagnating at best, more often dead, and so the pretext of white superiority, because it lives on? Beside exciting an attraction to the macabre, that keeps alive both the myth of indigenous peoples as bloodthirsty, and especially the role of Native Americans as enemy, by conjuring up images of gore and warfare? And what does it say that this is the theme most highlighted in exhibition placards, the story of war, and not that in North America, orders were sent out by courts that Native Americans should be killed and their bodies taken, for extermination, and implicitly, for sport? That is the real bloodthirst.
And in this and any academic rhetoric, is lost the fact that the exhibited material was a person, with a life entirely their own. In such exhibition design, the assertion is that - whether the material is human remains or lived objects - a fractional artifact from a single life can be made into an easily digestible visual, and expanded and held up as a representative first for a whole community, then a whole nation, then for all that falls under “Native American” then again for all that falls under “Native.” And so Lord places among the traditional clothing and jewelry, childhood photos, and in an entirely separate display are photos and objects that could in no way, visually, be called “Native” except that they belong to a Native person. But through ownership they are as native as the anorak and the body lying beside them. And the body one confronts is neither dusty and withered nor battle-torn, but warmly lit, healthy and peaceful. And still as a viewer one can’t know her by seeing her, though of course, one knows she is alive. She is still reduced to “exhibited material” and if she exists as a person it is to reject one’s “viewing”, to separate viewing from knowing. So when an exhibited person is as present as they possibly could be, and still one can not know them by viewing them, how can a withered piece of a person from another time be expected to speak for a multitude of living nations?