A Unique Account of Indigenous Art

The OCA publication Sovereign Words insists on the difference between cultivating traditionalism and being true to one’s own traditions.

Portrait of Iver Jåks. Photo: Kjell Fjørtoft. © 2018 Tromsø Museum, UiT.

“My fellow countrymen, avail yourself of the advantage of being neither colonised nor colonisers and read this dangerous book,” said novelist Sara Lidman about the Swedish translation of Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth) back in 1964. Scandinavia’s own colonial history has long been a blind spot in the region’s self-image.

Sovereign Words. Indigenous Art, Curation and Criticism, ed. Katya García-Antón (Amsterdam and Oslo: Valiz and Office for Contemporary Art, 2018)
OCA - Office for Contemporary Art Norway,

Sovereign Words may not be a dangerous book. But it is an important book, partly as an eye-opener to all of us unaware colonisers. It brings together contributions from sixteen artists, curators, and academics with ties to Indigenous Peoples. Together, they outline a multi-faceted – and, to the best of my knowledge, unique – picture of contemporary Indigenous art from Asia, Oceania, North America, and the Nordic region.

The book is a result of the seminar Critical Writing Ensembles, arranged under the auspices of the Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) during last year’s Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh.

One of the key concepts used in the book is that of ‘sovereignty’, a term which, when used in connection with Indigenous Peoples, has a number of meanings that go beyond the strict legal definitions. It is not only about establishing autonomous governments and the return of land, but also about reclaiming one’s own traditions and resisting the dominant culture, including the Western canon.

Santosh Kumar Das, Buddha on the Moon, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.

Not seeking acceptance

The question of Indigenous art’s relationship with the prevailing canon prompts different responses. “Indigenous artists, writers, and curators […] are not seeking acceptance from the hegemonic art-historical canon, but recognition as custodians of ancient, highly influential and neighbourly discourses,” states Katya García-Antón, director of OCA and editor of the book, in the introduction. A little later she asks: “Is it sufficient to widen the hegemonic and Modernist art-historical canon through the politics of inclusion? Is this expansion a new colonial model for Indigenous practices, or is it fostering the cosmopolitan kind of thinking that Indigenous communities have always shared?” I read García-Antón’s movement away from the programmatic to the openly explorative as a reflection of the fact that this theme is both complex and full of tension.

García-Antón’s question has clear echoes of feminist revisionism of the kind first launched in the 1970s. It too reminds me of how difficult it is to free oneself from the canon, or to change it. In spite of the breakthrough of feminism, neither those who envisioned an art history beyond canonisation, nor those who wanted, more pragmatically, to open up the canon to excluded women had their wishes fulfilled. Art made by women, especially those based on techniques and production methods associated with the traditional and collective, still occupy a position at the bottom of the ideological and financial hierarchy of art. An even more destructive effect is the fact that Indigenous art gets placed in the past, becoming reduced to anthropological documents from static, traditional cultures.

The contributions in this book challenge static traditionalism on several fronts: where it is imposed on Indigenous cultures from the outside; where it is cultivated internally; and where it settles into institutional hierarchies and categories.


Taking her point of departure in Iver Jåks’s art, Irene Snarby points out conflicts between Sami duodji – where aesthetic practices form part of an overarching cultural totality linked to nature and natural cycles – and the ideal of the autonomous artwork. Jåks’s duodji-based art challenges the institutional, conservation-related goal of preventing physical changes to works of art, as well as curatorial concepts of presenting art that is isolated from its environment.

Another description of collisions between Indigenous and Western perspectives unfolds in a North American context. David Garneau writes about the reception of Terrance Houle’s performance Iisistsikóówa. In this piece, Houle stages an assault on himself: first, four attackers dressed in balaklavas and academic robes hit him with rolled-up texts by art critics Clement Greenberg and Joane Cardinal Schubert; he then cuts off his own hair and ceremonially buries it. How should these events and actions be read? What may, to a non-initiated viewer, appear as an allegory for American Indigenous Peoples’ feelings of resignation and impotence, should, according to Garneau, rather be seen as “medicine, an antidote to the ocular-centric and textualised self, and the prophylactic disaster tourist manifesting destiny.”

Hannah Donnelly, At the End of Their World: Keepcups, 2017. Photo: Lucy Parakhina. Courtesy the artist.

Garneau offers a convincing argument for the necessity of art criticism by and for Indigenous Peoples. Still, I find his depiction of Western art criticism overly simplistic. “Unlike adversarial and ocular-centric Western criticism, Indigenous criticism is creative engagement in dialogue with art; it is co-responsive not meta-discursive,” writes Garneau. Western criticism becomes a one-sided counterpart to Indigenous criticism’s creativity, participation and dialogue.

Modernism as a target

The history of Western criticism also involves decades of problematising the primacy and privileging of vision and the ideal of critical distance. Feminist criticism is one example; the last twenty years have given rise to many other discussions based on social art and relational aesthetics. Elsewhere in the book, Modernism is set up as a target. Even though it is possible to identify certain modernist features in our present age, it seems strange to speak about criticism, academia, and artistic and curatorial practices being characterised by an underlying “modernist grammar” without further clarifying the concept. Still, García-Antón does not explain the idea in any more detail in her introduction. The book outlines a monolithic image of the dominant culture, and in a corresponding fashion, the descriptions of Indigenous cultures also lose detail, meaning that some of the complexity of the theme is thrown out with the decolonised bathwater. The need to distance oneself from Western art traditions gets in the way of the obviously important ambition of directing Indigenous art away from the need for external validation.

Nevertheless, Sovereign Words also offers a wealth of interesting examples of how Indigenous artists appropriate the colonisers’ culture, combining it with traditional art forms and knowledge. Megan Tamati-Quennells writes insightfully about the Maori artists Ralph Hotere, Shona Rapira Davies, Emily Karaka, and Michael Parekowhai, who take ideas and strategies derived from modernist art and interweave them in complex works that comment on colonialism and other political issues. Santosh Kumar Das describes, in anti-nostalgic fashion, how Madhubani art has changed just as any spoken language changes. Many of the texts also testify to the devastating effects of colonisation on societies and individuals. Sometimes, these testimonies and their simple facts are mentioned almost in passing, but this makes them no less shocking: “I was twelve years old when I was sent off to a boarding school, and I never returned home,” states the Sami solicitor, writer, and joiker Ánde Somby.

Warnings against Romanticism

This book issues several warnings against romanticising Indigenous culture as a result of traditionalism. What seems to me the most interesting contribution – Hannah Donnelly’s text on speculative Indigenous fiction – takes another approach, presenting Romanticism as an Indigenous artistic method. “Romanticising our futures has allowed our imagination to become an authority. […] This romanticism is not just the imagination of sovereignty but the conditions of sovereignty,” she writes. According to Donnelley, “the second invasion” is a recurring theme in speculative Indigenous fiction. In such narratives, it is the colonists’ turn to be colonised, in this case by extra-terrestrial beings. Indigenous fiction turns Western narratives about the demise of civilization on their head: for Indigenous Peoples, disaster has already struck with the expansion of Western civilization. Donnelly’s text is not about presenting Indigenous culture as a possible model for non-Indigenous people, but about a fundamental upheaval of categories where past and future change places. Still, one feels invited to take part in the work of imagining a future free of colonisers and colonised.

Iver Jåks, Jaskadit jorrá jurdda / Stille vender tanken/ ( Silently the Thought Turns), 1994-98.  Photo: Adnan Icagic, Tromsø Museum, UiT © Iver Jåks / BONO, Oslo 2018.