Today, the third major conference of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association opens in Toronto at York University. Entitled Sovereignties and Colonialisms: Resisting Racism, Extraction and Dispossession, the conference “aims to critique settler colonialism and white supremacy; challenge colonial gender binaries; examine genealogies of anti-Black racism and colonial racial formations; and think about resistance and oppression transnationally, in ways that challenge western hegemony and the travels of racist and colonial methods.” So many amazing minds have gathered to talk about sovereignty and colonialism from a range of perspectives and across a breadth of topics. The full schedule can be accessed here.
On Friday morning, 10:45-12:00 in room ACE 003, I will be participating in a panel called Art, Literature and Representations of Indigeneity with Sean Kennedy (CUNY), who will be speaking about “Indigeneity, Desire, and Refusal: Reconfiguring Literary Studies for Decolonization,” and Katherine Starks (Independent), who will be speaking about “A Holistic Approach to Gregory Scofield’s I Knew Two Métis Women.” I will be talking about the National Gallery of Canada’s Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art exhibition, testing some ideas about the decolonizing potential of cultural institutions, especially ones so closely tied (financially and ideologically) to the Canadian state. (This presentation at CESA is an edited version of a paper I gave in April as part of the University of Toronto’s 5th Annual Graduate English Conference: Memory, Memorialization, and Forgetting.)
The way that Indigenous identification functioned in the context of Sakahàn was not only a claim of being from a place since time immemorial; it also marked an inextricable connection to experiences of colonization. Considering Canada’s colonial history, Sakahàn was aptly situated at the country’s national gallery, an institution which has often acted as a mechanism of colonial subjugation by way of its perpetuation of Eurocentric art-historical values and subsequent omission of artworks and narratives that emerge from other cultural traditions. Unsurprisingly, many of the works within the exhibition were themselves acts of resistance to the gruesome inheritance of colonization and expressions of the ongoing struggles against it.
Theoretically, the exhibition was a gesture of solidarity with the decolonial work that is our living responsibility. And yet, the NGC undid at least some of this work through a repeated gesture: disclaimers that formally distanced the gallery from the politics of the work on display. Focusing on the appearance of the disclaimer directly next to the didactic panel for Nadia Myre’s work For those who cannot speak: the land, the water, the animals and the future generations (2013), I will discuss the responsibilities of curators and institutions in presenting work that directly engages decolonial politics within a colonial context.
Does the presentation of Myre’s work, in and of itself, constitute a moment of cultural self-determination, despite the presence of the disclaimer? Or does the disclaimer in some way neuter the decolonial potential of the work as displayed at the National Gallery?