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Putting Representation of Indigenous People in Dialogue with Indigenous Art

December 15, 2017

Annika Johnson standing in front of the Weisman Art Museum

Annika Johnson standing in front of the Weisman Art Museum
Photo by Cullen Kobayashi, CLAgency student

Annika Johnson graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in art history. She is currently a PhD candidate in the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, and is the Wyeth Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts. She is back in Minnesota for a year to finish up her dissertation research.

What is your academic background?

I did my undergrad at the University of Minnesota in the art history department. At first I thought I was going to be an urban studies major, but then took some art history classes and ended up loving them so much that I decided to switch my major. I worked with Gabe Weisberg, a professor of nineteenth-century art, who mentored me through the application process for graduate school. I knew that I wanted to go into curatorial work, and since museum jobs are so competitive, it is valuable to get a PhD.

I began attending the University of Pittsburgh for my graduate degree in 2012. I received my MA in the history of art and architecture in 2014, and began working on my PhD soon afterwards.

How have your academic interests evolved from your undergraduate experience up to now?

For my senior project, I researched Clara Mairs, an unknown Minnesota artist who worked from the 1910s through the 1960s. Researching her work ended up being a huge project, so I decided to go to graduate school to continue studying both midwestern modernism and female modernists who weren't getting much attention from scholars.

I took a class called "The Living and the Dead" with my advisor Kirk Savage, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in art of the United States. In that class, I wrote a paper on the images of the US-Dakota War, focusing on the stereotypical images of “the savage” that came out of that. It turns out that there was a shift in imagery during and immediately following the war. After the Dakota were removed from their land, prints and monuments celebrated this supposed American “victory.” It was a really dark topic to research, but I thought about how Dakota people still had agency in this representational process. This topic turned into my master's thesis, but at the end of the project I realized that I still knew very little about Dakota art, culture, and how Dakota people had chosen to represent themselves in their own artwork.

There weren't specialists in Native American art at the University of Pittsburgh, but my department really supported my efforts to approach this field that was totally new to me. I had to ask the question: “Why isn’t Native American art a standard part of American art history courses?” I began this self-taught journey by visiting museums, talking with curators, speaking with a lot of Native artists to learn about nineteenth-century objects.

The University of Minnesota has a great American Indian studies program and offers Dakota history and language courses, so I am back at UMN, trying to learn more about the language and culture. The cities are also a great place for me to be doing my work, since there is such a rich community of Dakota artists here.

What is your dissertation project about?

My dissertation project ended up being about how we put representation of indigenous people in dialogue with indigenous art. This is surprisingly not done that often. It’s difficult to do, as it requires you to reconcile two very different fields, anthropology and art history. It’s also challenging because it involves thinking critically about colonial histories. Those histories are difficult, but they need to be talked about more.

My research is both cross-cultural and transhistorical. I look at works from the nineteenth century, but I also pay attention to ways that present-day artists grapple with this troubled history in their work.

My dissertation research focuses on artistic exchange between Dakota people and the artists, explorers, and proto-ethnographers who were in that region interacting with Dakota people in the early- to mid-nineteenth century. I study how art objects mediated relationships between traders, officials, artists, and established kinship ties. The meaning of those objects changed at this time and facilitated a cross-cultural dialogue.

I also look at artists of European descent who who were in the Midwest and were documenting the cultural practices of indigenous people, paying particular attention to the biases that underpin those images. Many artists would paint images of seasonal ceremonies, such as hunting scenes or scenes of people gathering wild rice or maple sugar, but the artists wouldn’t record the names of the people who were in these images. Although we can’t name every individual depicted, we can look for the indigenous agency that lies behind the image and tell some of the stories that aren’t readily apparent on the surface. There is a much greater story about conflict and negotiation underneath that image.

Can you tell us more about how you have studied this type of artistic exchange?

This year, I’ve begun to consult with Dakota communities—something that should be, but is not always, a part of the research process for anthropologists and art historians. I want to better understand a lot of objects that were collected in not-so-great ways. Many Native objects in museum collections were looted from graves. Even if they weren’t, most were acquired without documentation about the people who made and used them. You’ll just see a pipe that will say “Sioux Indian” and it’s like “well there is a much different story than that.” I am trying to uncover those stories.

What is the broader impact of your research?

When dealing with a colonial history that continues to have an impact on communities today, you can encounter historical trauma when uncovering some of the aspects of those untold histories. Acknowledging in the first place that there is a deeply embedded colonial history within landscapes that greatly impacted communities is the place to start.

I hope that once I work in a museum, teach, and have any sort of educational initiative in either of those realms that I can help make these histories and their meanings among diverse communities apparent to people and make them question this relationship.

What advice do you have for someone interested in this field?

It’s always great for people to be interested in Native American art, American Indian studies, or art history in general. The best place to start is with your local community; see what is happening in the Native art world in your region, what sort of activists’ events are happening, know whose land it is that you are standing on, go to galleries and talk to curators at those museums, and discover what you’re interested in.

My advice is to always reach out to people. If you’re thinking of going to graduate school, give yourself enough time to talk to the advisor you want to work with before you apply. My advisor and my department are very supportive of the course I wanted to study. They helped me fill in the gaps of my coursework and find research funding to meet with artists and curators to see objects in collections.

There are many museum studies programs that address some of the current issues that museums are facing as they try to figure out how to repair relations with Native people. Another option would be to go into a museum studies program with that goal in mind, and again always make sure to talk to the people in the programs and see what funding resources are available. You do have to patch together your own resources, but people are always willing to talk and help you out.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.