Above: Fig. 1. Installation view of Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry (canoe made by various Wabanaki artists, birchbark, cedar, ash, spruce, root, pitch, 18 ½ x 222 x 35 in., 2004), Colby College Museum of Art (photo: Véronique Plesch).
This past July, the Executive Board of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), an organization that gathers 40,000 members from more than 20,000 institutions, came up with this new definition of museums (to be voted in early September):
Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.
Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.
The current exhibition at the Colby College Museum of Art, Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry, does just that. Dedicated to contemporary art of the First Nations of present-day Maine and Maritime Canada forming the Wabanaki Confederacy (the Abenaki, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot), the exhibition is guest curated by Jennifer Neptune (Penobscot basketmaker and beadworker) and Kathleen Mundell (director of Cultural Resources and of the Maine Arts Commission’s Traditional Arts Program). Remarkably, it is the first major show of Wabanaki art to be held in an art museum and the terminology used by the curators is worth noting: “art” and “artists,” rather than “craft” and “craftspeople.”
Upon entering the exhibition, the visitor is greeted by a canoe (fig. 1)—wíwənikan means portage, the act of carrying a boat and/or its cargo between waters. On a terrace off the museum’s lobby is a wigwam (fig. 2) that the Colby College Museum of Art commissioned to Barry Dana, former chief of the Penobscot Nation. The canoe and the wigwam bookend the show and allude to movement and stasis, to water and land. They also share materials: wood and bark, which reappear in many of the objects on view. A didactic section presents these materials (fig. 3): the cedar used in canoes and the black ash (or brown ash as it is known in Maine) that provides splints for baskets, the birchbark essential to canoes, wigwams, and containers, the spruce root that lashes bark and wood, the sweetgrass woven in “fancy” baskets (as opposed to the utility baskets made solely of brown ash), the porcupine quills that decorate boxes, as well as the glass beads first introduced by the Europeans. If the canoe carries humans (and the wigwam provides shelter), baskets and boxes hold and carry their belongings.
The theme of this issue of The Maine Arts Journal offers a felicitous framework to reflect upon this exhibition, one that has been close to my scholarly heart for many years. Back in 2002, Kathleen Ashley, now retired professor of English at the University of Southern Maine, and I coedited a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies on the theme of The Cultural Processes of “Appropriation.” In our introduction, we discussed how the very notion of appropriation forces a reconsideration of concepts such as “originality” and “influence.” We suggested that “appropriation” is a word that emphasizes the fundamentally active nature of what is not a one-time event but instead, a process, and that the word’s etymology confirms this. From the Latin verb appropriare, resulting from the conjoining of the prefix ad and proprius—it means “to make one’s own.” The etymology also reveals two important issues that are at stake: power and identity. To appropriate is indeed to gain power over something as it is made one’s own. This is in part why the term had a negative charge when it was first used in cultural studies—and continues to have, as the notion moved beyond the confines of academic discourse into that of political correctness. Nowadays, in common speech, seldom does the term “cultural appropriation” convey positive connotations, but it need not be, as this issue of the MAJ shows, for, rather than taking the term in a one-dimensional and binary scheme in which a dominant culture appropriates a weaker one, we can follow the post-colonial theorists who showed how the “colonized” might have had more agency than what the colonizers believed and that, in fact, while they might appear to be adopting the tools of the dominant culture, they might also be resisting and even subverting the colonial agenda.
The concept of appropriation helps to bring about a new narrative, one that gives voice to those who have been oppressed and silenced—in this sense, it fits squarely within the movement to “decolonize” museums (and, more specifically, to “indigenize”). Wíwənikan is about revising the stories that museums tell, and by whom: not only do we have guest curators, who worked with a team of Wabanaki community advisors, but throughout the exhibition and the catalogue we hear the voices of the artists themselves. Furthermore, starting with the exhibition’s title, Wabanaki languages are prominently featured (fig. 4).
Curators and artists alike stress their awareness of connecting past, present, and future, of keeping the tradition alive for future generations. This is also a recurring theme in the artists’ biographies included in the catalogue: most of them mention the elders from whom they learned their chosen artform. Remarkably, members of several families of artists are featured in the exhibition. Wíwənikan takes stock of what has been accomplished in recent decades to preserve Wabanaki artistic traditions: for instance, the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance was founded in 1993 and the first canoe workshop was held on Indian Island, Maine, in 2002. But the exhibition is also about how new life is infused into these traditions. The works on view are all very recent (except for a handful from the 1990s, most of them are from the 21st century, with quite a few from 2018 and 2019) and they update the tradition—adapting traditional techniques to contemporary esthetics and sometimes incorporating new materials. We also find non-traditional media, indeed appropriated by Wabanaki artists, such as pen-and-ink drawings on paper, acrylic and oil paintings on canvas or board, and digital video; showing that appropriation is a dynamic, on-going process, which doesn’t flow in a single direction.
I should also note that an ecological dimension is paramount to Wíwənikan. The canoe at the entrance is meant to travel Maine’s many waterways and affirms their importance in the life of these communities (water occupies 12.8% of Maine!). The natural world is central to all the works in the exhibition, be it in their function, their iconography, and/or their materials (the woods, barks, sweetgrass, and porcupine quills already mentioned, but also leather, feathers, sinews, deer antlers, shells, and stones). The artists possess a deep knowledge of the trees and plants they use, of where they grow, of when to collect them, and for what effect. For instance, birchbark harvested in the winter is darker and thus can be incised to reveal a lighter lower stratum (fig. 5). Ecological awareness is fundamental to Wabanaki culture, based, as curator Kathleen Mundell explains in the catalogue, on gift economy, that is, a reciprocal exchange: one cannot deplete the environment, for a set of responsibilities ties you to it. In his catalogue essay, Barry Dana recounts how he realized that forestry, which he had studied, is “nothing more than growing a tree in order to cut it down and make paper.” In a wall copy, Dana further explains that as a Penobscot he feels “bound to be a steward of the land, the air, the water and the plants and animals.” The exhibition also considers the damage that’s been done: several contributors mention the destruction caused by the emerald ash borer beetle and we learn that climate change and rising sea levels threaten the sweetgrass. Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry finds a poignant companion in the exhibition on the floor below, Occupy Colby: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, which addresses the alarming state of the planet and, in particular, the effects of global warming (fig. 6). These issues are literally brought home by an installation by Maya Lin that the visitor encounters when descending from Wíwənikan to the Lower Jetté galleries. From Lin’s series of endangered waterways, it represents the very river that shares its name with one of the nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy: the Penobscot. Its title, Interrupted River, refers to the dams that have altered its ecosystem and profoundly (and negatively) affected the Penobscot way of life.
Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry, runs through January 12, 2020 at the Colby College Museum of Art.
Ashley, Kathleen and Véronique Plesch, eds. The Cultural Processes of “Appropriation.” Special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32.1 (2002).
International Council of Museum (ICOM) website. https://icom.museum/en/activities/standards-guidelines/museum-definition/
Mundell, Kathleen and Jennifer Neptune, Wíwənikan…the beauty we carry. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Museum of Art, 2019.
Plesch, Véronique. “On Appropriations.” In Crossing Borders: Appropriations and Collaborations. Special issue of Interfaces 38 (2016–17). 7–38. http://preo.u-bourgogne.fr/interfaces/index.php?id=308