In Indigenous art course, students learn by curating

Students in the remote course Indigenous Art, Issues and Concepts, taught by visiting instructor Marina Tyquiengco, will cap off the fall semester by creating their own Indigenous art exhibitions.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Courses conducted remotely over Zoom don’t have to be impersonal experiences — a point that many instructors at Brown University are proving this semester. 

Marina Tyquiengco, a teaching associate with the Department of the History of Art and Architecture, has employed a host of methods to turn her virtual course, Indigenous Art, Issues and Concepts, into a hands-on and interactive experience that mirrors in many ways in-person instruction.

The students in the course are jump-starting their own online discussions each week and analyzing readings, films, talks and artworks together on video chat. Together, they’re exploring big questions: What is Indigeneity? Who decides what Indigenous art is and is not? Does Indigenous art belong in an anthropological museum or an art gallery? 

In November, Tyquiengco’s students will put their knowledge to the test in a unique way: by conceiving of their very own art exhibitions.

“People who study and pursue a career in art history usually have to wait a long time before they get to curate their own exhibition,” Tyquiengco said. “I think it’s really empowering to put something together and think about how to present it to a broad audience. I want them to feel like they’re not just learning but also creating something in this class.”

Bambi Makes Some Extra Bucks Modeling at the Studio by America Meredith
Cherokee artist America Meredith’s “Bambi Makes Some Extra Bucks Modeling at the Studio” is one of many works of art Tyquiengco’s students are analyzing and discussing this semester. The work depicts Native artist and teacher Dorothy Dunn, whom many have criticized for defining Native art within narrow parameters, leading an art class. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The final project — in which small groups of students will present written summaries of their exhibition themes, select works of art, and create museum-ready labels that explain each work’s history, context and meaning — is more than a classroom exercise. Like many course assignments at Brown, the project brings together students from a diverse set of backgrounds (academic and otherwise) to navigate a complex, ever-changing subject, a task they’ll likely face in their post-graduate lives regardless of what careers they pursue.

Tyquiengco, who spent part of her childhood in Guam as a member of the CHamoru people and is now a curatorial assistant at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and a Ph.D. candidate in history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, is new to the world of virtual teaching. But she taught this same course at Brown in Fall 2019 and said the material was remarkably portable to the online world — thanks in part to her students, who have been more than willing to engage in spirited interactions despite the physical distance between them.

“They’re using their critical thinking skills in every class,” she said. “They’re thinking deeply. They’re asking tough questions and not accepting all that they read as fact.”

That’s critical, Tyquiengco said, for a field as complex as Indigenous art, where even the use of the word “art” is contested. An influential 2012 paper, “No Word for Art in My Language?”, traces the history of a long-held idea that for Indigenous peoples, the creation of visual objects is not a profession or avocation that can be considered independently, but simply a part of life. 

“There is no rarefied space for art in many Indigenous cultures, like a museum or a gallery,” Tyquiengco said. “Many see it as a contiguous part of being and making and engaging in the world.”

In the essay — which Tyquiengco and her students read and discussed in September — Chiricahua Apache scholar Nancy Marie Mithlo details the divide between Indigenous peoples who reject Western fine art culture and contemporary Indigenous artists who move more comfortably between the Western and Indigenous worlds. Some in the latter group exhibit and sell the art they make, sometimes even claiming to be “an artist first and an Indian second,” Mithlo notes.

Pinpointing what is and is not Indigenous art is one among many complicated questions the students will explore throughout the semester, Tyquiengco said. They’ll also study why Indigenous art is sometimes categorized as anthropology, the ways in which Indigenous artists responded to 19th century colonialism in the United States, Canada and Australia, and Indigenous artists’ use of art as activism, from the 1960s to today.

There is no rarefied space for art in many Indigenous cultures, like a museum or a gallery. Many see it as a contiguous part of being and making and engaging in the world.

Marina Tyquiengco Teaching Associate in History of Art and Architecture

Brown junior Olivia Maliszewski, an artist and member of the Rappahannock tribe who is concentrating in science, technology and society, took Tyquiengco’s course in Fall 2019 and said it greatly expanded her understanding of Indigenous art. The experience not only introduced her to Indigenous and Aboriginal artists in the Americas and Australia but also offered a window into entirely new ways of thinking about what it means to make art.

“There was one Aboriginal artist who wrote about the fact that the most important and sacred part of her artistic process was actually creating the piece, and then the final piece didn’t matter much after that,” Maliszewski said. “It’s completely different than the Western view of creating art, which is mostly about the end product.”

That artist’s approach inspired Maliszewski to create an original piece, which she then included in her proposal for an exhibition focused on art by and about Native women reclaiming their sexual power.

“In my culture and many other Indigenous cultures, sex was seen as sacred, and nudity was not inherently sexual,” she said. “This changed when colonizers came and enforced Western ideology and Christianity, which stated that these things were sinful. Native women are often exoticized in popular culture and have high rates of sexual assault. Thus, by showing Native women reclaiming their sexuality and sexual power in my exhibition, I wanted to tear down narratives of sin and abuse and counter it with a narrative of power.”

The power of the course, Tyquiengco said, lies in her students’ varied backgrounds and interests. Some, like Maliszewsi, come from Indigenous communities, while others don’t. Some are undergraduates joining disparate areas of study through Brown’s Open Curriculum; others are graduate students who have experience working in museums and classrooms. Some are artists; others are historians or public humanities scholars. 

“The students are all coming from different contexts, and it allows us to have these big open conversations where they bring in perspective from their previous coursework or their own personal background,” she said. 

Also enriching the class are guest presentations and film screenings hosted by the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative (NAISI) at Brown, which funded Tyquiengco’s course; relevant scholarship by some of Brown’s own Native faculty, including Assistant Professor of American Studies Adrienne Keene; and the knowledgeable staff at the University’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, which last year mounted two exhibitions focused on art created by Indigenous peoples and allies protesting federal decisions to strip a national monument of its protected status and to construct a natural resource-threatening pipeline

“I don’t think this is a course about art so much as a course about Indigenous history, Indigenous perspectives and Indigenous voices examined through the lens of art,” Tyquiengco said. “I hope my course opens students’ eyes to the rich resource that is NAISI, where they can go to delve more deeply into issues like Native education and Indigenous access to food. These issues are relevant to all of our lives, whether we realize it or not.”