Art is as essential in our lives as the water we drink and the air we breathe. People in all parts of the world, from a small tribe to a metropolis, enjoy and appreciate art, albeit in different ways. Sometimes, art is a product of a collective mindset, of centennial views on life, symbols and truths inherited by generations and translated into different aesthetic languages. This is the case of indigenous art, a type of creative expression that reflects the soul of the people creating it: myths, histories, traditions, and moods that link those of common descent. Often, these creations are transformed by discourses, frames, and meanings attached to them, as they are uprooted and exposed to global audiences.
When discussing the cultural production of indigenous groups, we must first define who falls into the category of tribal peoples. According to the first article of the International Labour Organisation Convention C169, “indigenous peoples have cultural, economic and social conditions that distinguish them from the rest of the communities in a given nation.” These conditions are, among other, deeply rooted in special ties to geographic areas: the ancestral lands that indigenous peoples inhabited before periods of colonisation.
In order to genuinely understand the different artistic manifestations of people around the world, it´s necessary to change the way we think about them. As in most cases, it all starts with the words we use to describe what surrounds us, because language is what allows us to establish a relationship with the world, in the first place. So, what do we mean when we talk about “ethnic art” or “cultural production” of indigenous peoples? And, more importantly, how are these categories evaluated and managed in a Western context, often seen as a self-appointed authoritative centre in cultural criticism and research?
We could start by discussing the linguistic aspect for indigenous peoples in the Americas. For example, the indigenous group Guna of Panama have particular words to describe the clothes and art they produce, the food they eat, and the way they see kinship. On the other hand, some Native American tribes of the United States of America didn´t even have a word for “artist;” instead, they used expressions such as “well done,” or other descriptive structures. It is interesting to observe that all these peoples have been written about much more than they chose to write themselves. They became objects of invasive intellectual scrutiny, while cultural elements and artworks they produced became “exhibits” to travel the world for the voyeuristic gaze of museum goers.
Collecting, classifying, analysing, and exhibiting indigenous art implies handling cultural form, with questionable regard for content and origin. Looking at these artworks, attempting to understand them, and further speaking of them institutes a type of meaning making mechanism that requires displacement, conceptual de- and re-coding, and an eventual disintegration of core elements of these pieces.
Perhaps a more honest and respectful way to approach non-Western cultural production would be to reconsider the way we take apart these artworks, in our quest to decode their meaning and understand their genesis. Why, after all, do we need to understand, in order to accept and enjoy?
Words: Astrid Scheuermann
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu