The gallery of Global Indigenous Arts at the Spencer Museum of Art explores artistic inspirations gleaned from nature, heritage, and transcendent experiences. From ancient instruments to reverse glass paintings, these objects speak to the connections of people to place, the importance of traditions, and the essential creativity of the human spirit.
Sculptural works from around the world serve as anchors for discrete segments of the gallery hosting rotations of arts and cultural works from The University of Kansas’ former ethnographic collections. These works, now accessioned into the Spencer collection, are presented in dialogue with new acquisitions and rarely seen works to create new synergies and thought provoking engagements.
Please explore these indigenous works in our galleries.
Cassandra Mesick recently joined the Spencer Museum's staff as curator of global and indigenous art. In this Q&A, she shares insights into the first Roots & Journeys rotation under her purview, installed in the gallery in May, 2013.
In many ways, this rotation reflects my experiences since I arrived at the Spencer this fall. After many rewarding collaborations with faculty from KU and Haskell, I’ve learned which objects serve as indispensable teaching tools for local universities, as well as which ones excite students. So, I tried to choose objects and develop themes that would allow teachers, students, and the general public to engage with the art in ways that are meaningful to them. Through interactions with my new colleagues at the Spencer, I’ve started to think critically about how to integrate this collection into the museum’s existing mission statement and exhibition philosophy while simultaneously highlighting its presence. Of course, there are one or two pieces I also selected just because I really liked them.
How would you describe the concept unifying the current rotation of the Roots & Journeys gallery?
Both the works of art on display and their interpretation foreground the vitality and dynamism of art produced by indigenous people in areas of the world that are often intellectually, and sometimes physically, inaccessible to the average museum visitor. Too often, ideas about “natives” are linked to outdated stereotypes, which can make these communities seem frozen in a particular time and place. The reality is that their traditions have undergone as many transformations-in form, medium, meaning, aesthetics, etc.-as European or American or Asian art has. The goal is to explore the contexts that have driven these transformations while also teaching audiences about different types of global art, the people who made it, and the local histories that led to its development.
If you were going to point out one significant but easy-to-miss detail in one of the works of art currently on view, what would it be?
One of the smaller cases displays a pair of moccasins from the late 1800s with painted soles that were once part of a parfleche, or a stiff rawhide carrying envelope used by American Indian tribes to transport rations and belongings while hunting migratory buffalo. I allude to this fact in the object’s label, but visitors may not notice that we have an intact parfleche elsewhere in the gallery. Another insider tidbit is that we first made this observation while photographing the moccasins for the museum’s database: as our Collections team experimented with different placements for the shoes, they noted that the designs on the soles aligned when positioned in a certain way.
Two of the works on view are by contemporary Senegalese artist Mor Gueye, whose connection to Islam features prominently in his paintings. Do these paintings tell us something about Islam in Africa today that we are unlikely to grasp otherwise?
Mor Gueye has been referred to as the “dean” of Senegalese glass painting. It’s interesting that the Spencer has two of his works, but they were acquired at different times, through different means, and for different purposes. What I hope people learn from Gueye’s art is that many sects of Islam prize education, value community, and promote peace. By displaying his works alongside those of Yelimane Fall, another Senegalese artist and activist with a strong faith in Islam, I hope to offer a counterpoint to preconceptions people may have about the nature of Qu’ran and its teachings while also showcasing two of Senegal’s most acclaimed artists.
Can you give us a little hint about what to expect in this gallery next?
I hope this space will continue to serve as a venue for showcasing the Spencer’s growing collection of art from the Americas, Africa, and Oceania. On the one hand, this will entail organizing frequent rotations of objects to ensure that the breadth of this collection is made available to the public. On the other hand, I hope to continue acquiring new works of contemporary art from these areas and using the gallery to highlight. I’m dedicated to learning about living indigenous artists, community leaders, and social activists from places that have often been marginalized in the art world. Ideally, this display space will emphasize those places where categories like “indigenous art” intersect with “fine art.” The Spencer’s pioneering efforts to dissolve such distinctions, exemplified by Project Redefine, makes me hopeful that the gallery will extend these conversations and debates through targeted exhibitions and programming.