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Photo by Chris Benson

Decolonizing the Practice of Artmaking

Sequoia Hauck
Apr 16, 2018 · 6 min read

What is Colonization?

When thinking of artmaking, do you think of it as a way to express diverse thoughts and opinions, or as a way to express yourself to the world? Perhaps it is an avenue to explore culture and history? Is it an educational process that allows one to learn about subjects unheard of before? Artmaking, to me, is all that and more.

It never occurred to me that the way I think about artmaking is altered by how society has functioned up until now. Society is dictated by colonialism. How does that affect our artmaking and is the process of artmaking inherently colonized?

To answer that question, we must first understand the concept of colonization. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as

“The action or process of settling among and establishing control over the Indigenous people of an area.”

This means that colonization has a power over people. What is missing from this definition is what happens to an area after it is colonized.

Most think of colonization in the past tense, as something that happened years ago. Colonization is not a one time practice; it is a ongoing process. Colonization is continuing as we speak.

What Does Decolonization Look Like?

It is important to be conscious that every day we all live within the process of colonization. The lens I see the world through is one of a White Earth Ojibwe and Hupa woman. Though my artmaking I challenge the practice of colonization and propose that we bring light to the idea of decolonizing artmaking. Decolonizing artmaking is giving spaces, voices, representation, and acknowledgement to Indigenous peoples and all people of color. My art focuses on my identity as well as my relationship with my ancestors and my future generations. It is important to me that Indigenous people are given the voice and the opportunities to speak about Indigenous issues. What became a concern for me: how do I not fall into the trap of colonization?

My Guidelines for Decolonization

When I think about how I want to decolonize my own artmaking practices, I want to give myself guidelines to live by. I want to be able to keep myself accountable for my thoughts and actions. Here are five guidelines that I will follow to decolonize my artmaking practices:

  1. Challenge the Standard

Mona Smith (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota) discusses decolonizing the current standard of artmaking in her article PlaceMAKING? (published Forecast Public Art’s Public Art Review, Issue 57). In this article, Smith challenges the term placemaking. She writes:

“The dominant worldview sees the world, the universe, as a resource, something for humans to have power over, with the resultant belief that places can be made. The popular term placemaking (coined here in Minnesota, by the way) seems quintessentially colonialist.”

Smith is one of the first to point out that placemaking is a term that is disrespectful and creates a disconnect from the place and the land. She is proposing that people should instead be focusing on respect and reciprocity– Dakota principles–to be able to create a relationship to the place and to the land. Smith is able to challenge the standard practice of placemaking and highlight the issues that this process creates. Challenging the standard is an ability that requires courage. It is one of the hardest and most important steps to decolonizing, as it alters the mindset created by colonialism.

2. Confront Conventional Educational Practices

The ways we give value to certain educational practices is highly colonized. The problems occur when value is only given to those who are educated in a specific academic setting. One does not need to be educated through academics to do art. Who are the ones giving value to the educated and what systems are in place to enact these values? I had reservations about pursuing a degree in Theater Arts. I expressed this doubt and I received this response: it was important to have a Indigenous person educated in Theater Arts. I was very upset by that statement, not at the person, but at the fact that society will hold me at a higher value if I am educated.

At the same time, they are not wrong. It is important that I, an Indigenous person, am educated–if not for me, for future generations. However, I don’t have to just be educated by an institution. I want to give value to those alternative educational practices in my work.

3. Honor the Past and Future

We are now at a time where Indigenous cultures and ideologies are becoming recognized and appreciated. This has been a painstaking process; it is not over yet. Our ways of knowing were stripped from us and we were told that we were not allowed to be who were are. This lead to generations of loss and pain. My family had lost our culture. We were raised away from our home and we were not connected to our traditional ways. I am trying to regenerate that for myself and for my future generations. I want them to grow up knowing the language of their people. I want them to understand the history of their people and feel a sense of pride in themselves. I have to go against what I was taught through the colonial mindset. I feel the responsibility to decolonize my own mind and my own artmaking practices. In all my work, I want to make sure that I give thanks to my past and future generations. I am always thinking about ways to create a better path for the future generations and give respect to my ancestors for getting me to where I am.

4. Remember the Importance of Representation

Representation allows people to connect and see themselves in another light. I always think about the fact that when I was little I loved Wonder Woman. I saw myself in her because she was a brunette and a woman. Thinking back, that wasn’t truly enough; I had settled. Where was the Indigenous Wonder Woman that I could have looked up to as a child? I want future generations to be able to have role models that they can connect with, as I feel that gives them the ability to be proud of their identity. This is especially true for women and people of color, as they are underrepresented in our society.

Young people of color should not have to settle for the next best thing.

5. Go Against the Expected

When making art as a person of color, there are assumptions about what kind of art you will make. Because I am an Indigenous artists there is a expectation of what my art will look like. What does Indigenous art look like? Is my art inherently Indigenous because of who I am? To that I say: who has the right to put worth onto what kind of art I make? Another expectation around art that people of color do is it has to be sad and showing their experience through struggle and hardship. This was pointed out to me by choreographer and interdisciplinary artist Pramila Vasudevan. Not all people of color’s stories have to be about their suffering. Vasudevan’s art is the definition of decolonized artmaking. Through her work it is clear to see that she does not let the assumptions and expectations of others affect her work.

Continuous Decolonization

Decolonizing the practice of artmaking has no one single answer. This list is ever-changing and ever-growing. In five, ten, or fifteen years I could create a whole new list. To me, what is important is that I have created a standard for myself.

Through the vast idea of multiple perspectives, the process of decolonization has infinite possibilities. Decolonization is not a process that is going to happen organically. Everyone needs to keep the idea of decolonization at the forefront of their minds. It requires unlearning all the practices that have shaped our minds. I do not have all the answers and this process is not an easy one.

I invite you to create your own five guidelines that allow you to go against the majority and decolonize your own artmaking.

This piece is part of a series written by college undergraduates enrolled in off-campus study programs through the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA). HECUA programs offer students a chance to think deeply about the issues that matter most, and we’d like to share a piece of that experience with you. Every student post on the HECUA Medium page considers a theory or reading that intersects with that student’s lived experience. For more information about HECUA programs, click here.

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