Elizabeth Harney and Ruth B. Phillips, editors. Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigeneity, Colonialism. Duke University Press, 2018. 456 pp. ISBN: 978-0822368717.



Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigeneity, Colonialism is a timely collection of fourteen well-argued essays assembled and introduced by University of Toronto and Carleton University art historians, Elizabeth Harney and Ruth B. Phillips. The essays are written by an international team of art historians and focus on the production of artists working in the early twentieth century in post- or neocolonial countries formerly under British and French domination as well as in the United States. Emerging out of the 2010 Clark Art Institute colloquium, Global Indigenous Modernism: Primitivism, Artists, Mentors, the essays explore the aesthetic practices of specific Indigenous and colonized artists, hitherto largely, if not entirely, excluded from discussions of early twentieth-century modern art. Deemed to fall outside of the definitions of modernism as propounded by such influential scholars as Roger Fry, their forms of visual expression were rendered invisible, as the authors rightly assert, not only in art history's modernist discourse in academia, but in museum exhibitions as well.

Whether categorized by others as, for example, Aboriginal, Haida, Inuit, Maori, Melanesian, Nigerian or Zulu, the authors argue that the modes of visual expression produced by the artists they discuss share something fundamental. And that is precisely the artists' engagement with modernity, meaning a rapidly changing world brought about by the forces of nation-building, industrialization, urbanization and material changes (i.e., the introduction of, for example, the automobile, airplane, refrigerator, telephone, radio and a host of other electrical devices) that impacted peoples' lives across the world.

But, as the authors of Mapping Modernisms underscore throughout, engaging with modernism for the artists in question (and others who shared in their predicaments) also meant dealing with the structures and legacies of colonialisms and contemporary artistic currents as well as, for some, playing with the very idea of primitivism. Collectively, the authors argue that between the late nineteenth century and the Cold War, modernity was a transnational phenomenon and global artistic practice, however varied its local and Indigenous manifestations. By arguing for specific Indigenous and colonized artists' place within art history's modernist discourse, the authors aim to re-conceptualize the art historical narratives of modernism.

To lay the groundwork for the essayists' individual case studies, Harney and Phillips' cogent introduction discusses the evolution of art history as a discipline in terms of its complicit history with colonialism, imperialism and nation-building. The very Western powers which forced peoples into enslavement or indentured servitude or to otherwise live as colonial subjects well into the twentieth century, mapped Indigenous and colonized artists out of the art historical canon, as they literally remapped the world by laying claim to remote regions. Western powers asserted the universal principles and values of art while simultaneously removing subjected peoples from canon and physical spaces, thereby denying the very humanity, intellect and creativity of these people, among them Indigenous modernists. As the editors stress, the West needed concepts like "native," "Indigenous" and "primitive" to support their imperialist ambitions, and the use of these terms shunted the artists under discussion to the margins of art history. In their introduction, Harney and Phillips also discuss the growing awareness of this complicit history within the disciplines of anthropology and, more slowly, art history. In so doing, they outline the epistemological biases encountered by art historians, such as those contributing to the volume, as parallel (in a fashion) to those faced by the Indigenous and colonized artists they discuss. In this spirit, the book, while rigorous in its scholarship, reverberates with a dual sense purpose.

The essays are organized into three parts. Broadly speaking, the five essays in Part I explore how definitions of primitivism often relegated the artistic practices of twentieth century artists of Zulu, Inuit, Haida, Kwakwaka'wakw and Māori heritage to "folk art" or "craft." The categories  denoted that the works were neither that pure form of expression created by their ancestors and influencing Cubists and Surrealists, nor anything remotely akin to the sophisticated art of those Western modernists. While arguing against the general assumption that all Indigenous and colonized artists existed outside of modernism and contemporary artistic currents, the authors explore the challenges that Indigenous modernist artworks have posed, not only for the discipline, but also for their creators themselves. The four essays in Part II examine issues of transcultural exchange, identity and hybrid creativity. They discuss, for example, the evolution of subject matter in individual artist's modes of visual expression and how stark subject matter (e.g., contemporary political events and changes in the lives of women) seep into their work. In other words, the authors explore how the artworks narrate aspects of modernity and "the passages from colonialism to decolonization" (Thomas 172). Finally, the five essays in Part III explore Indigenous artists' overt engagement with cosmopolitan life and vanguard artistic currents and, for some of them, the importance of artistic collaborations. Mapping Modernisms' chapter contributors are Bill Anthes, Peter Brunt, Karen Duffek, Erin Haney, Elizabeth Harney, Heather Igloliorte, Sandra Klopper, Ian McLean, Anitra Nettleton, Chika Okeke-Agulu, W. Jackson Rushing III, Damian Skinner, Nicholas Thomas and Norman Vorano.

There is no question that the art world is grappling with how to rectify its exclusionary practices towards Indigenous and colonized artists, modernist or not. On February 5, 2019, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City announced that it will close its galleries for four months this summer to feature more works by "historically under-recognized Modern and contemporary artists" (Kenney 2019). Hopefully, it will include works by modernist Indigenous and colonized artists. However, a number of controversies have swirled around major art museums in recent years, and some of them speak to the landmines they face as they try to incorporate the art of Indigenous and colonized artists—and their histories—into their displays and narratives. In 2017, for example, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis came under fire from Dakota activists for its installation of the sculpture "Scaffold." The sculpture evoked the 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota men and was made by the non-Native artist Sam Durant. In 2017, both the Walker Art Center and the Whitney Museum of American Art were challenged over their Jimmy Durham retrospective, "Jimmy Durham: At the Center of the World." Native American activists have challenged Durham's self-identification as Cherokee (Slenske 2017). In addition, and most recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been denounced by Native activists for its inclusion of sacred and sensitive objects among the Native American objects displayed in its redesigned American Wing (Angeletti 2019). Such efforts to promote, in this case, Native American visual forms of expression as art alongside that of Western art are long overdue, but clearly fraught with risk. Blindsided, art museums are, it seems, treading into unknown territory, literally and figuratively.

The strength and scholarly contribution of Mapping Modernism is that, in each of its essays, the authors ground the aesthetic practices of the artists they study firmly in the complexity of modern worlds they experienced by demonstrating how those artists negotiated their place in the world—through their chosen modes of visual expression. Dispelling assumptions of the past, the authors reveal the artist to be as cognizant of the exigencies of their complicated histories and lives, as they are in command of their expressive forms. Mapping Modernism sheds much needed light onto the artistic production of modernist artists living in post- and neocolonial countries in the early twentieth century.

Cécile Rose Ganteaume, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian


Works Cited

Angeletti, Gabriella. "Native American Group Denounces Met's Exhibition of Indigenous Objects." The Art Newspaper, 6 Nov. 2018, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/native-american-group-denounces-met-s-exhibition-of-indigenous-objects

Kenney, Nancy. "New York's MoMA to Close for Four Months for Renovation." The Art Newspaper, 5 Feb. 2019, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/moma-announces-plans-to-reopen-in-october

Slenske, Michael. "Does It Matter If Jimmie Durham, Noted Cherokee Artist, Is Not Actually Cherokee?" New York, 1 Nov. 2017, https://www.vulture.com/2017/11/jimmie-durham-at-the-center-of-the-world-whitney-museum.html