‘Indigenous Histories’ and the Folly of Encyclopaedic Exhibitions

Despite it’s range and sincerity, a group exhibition focusing on First Nations artists relies on outdated curatorial methodologies

BY ​​​​​​​Sofie Krogh Christensen in Exhibition Reviews | 10 MAY 24

A sense of déjà-vu washes over me when entering the exhibition ‘Indigenous Histories’ at KODE Bergen. A collaboration with Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (MASP), the project was initiated by MASP artistic director Adriano Pedrosa, curator of this year’s Venice Biennale, ‘Foreigners Everywhere’, and, much like the biennial, ‘Indigenous Histories’ sets out to counter the Euromerican bias of the art-historical canon. Installed in consecutive white cubicles across the first floor of KODE, this exhibition is similarly ambitious in scale, featuring 285 works by more than 170 artists.

‘Indigenous Histories’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: Kode Bergen Art Museum, Norway

Standing beneath the spectacular, portal-like fibre installation Crossing Paths (2014), by Sámi artist Outi Pieski, it’s immediately possible to sense the range and sincerity of this near-encyclopaedic exhibition, which focuses exclusively on First Nations artists in North and South America, Oceania, and the Nordic regions. Works in various media spanning multiple centuries are organized into seven sections according to geography, which pairs contemporary pieces, such as Mexican artist Minerva Cuevas’s El proletario (The Proletarian, 2015) – a chocolate silkscreen print protesting ongoing industrial colonialism in Mexico – with historic documents like the Codex Borbonicus (c.1520), a rare record of the divinatory calendars of the Aztec Empire. An eighth section is devoted to indigenous activism around the world.

‘Indigenous Histories’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: Kode Bergen Art Museum, Norway

Given the size of this exhibition, the decision to showcase works within white cubes was, perhaps, a necessary evil. It does, however, make it hard to see this as a display of Indigenous practices on their own terms – especially considering that certain works, including shaman André Taniki Yanomami’s 1977 marker-pen drawings of burial rituals, were never intended to be understood only as art objects. Even works made for the white cube, such as Barry Ace’s bricolages Sacred Water I and II (both 2016) – which draw on two historical waterflow charts to shed light on the current water crisis – suffer from being allocated insufficient space in this tightly hung show. Additionally, the fact that the museum has opted to label each section according to nation state not only reinforces outdated curatorial methodologies but seems contrary to the exhibition’s stated intention.

‘Indigenous Histories’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: Kode Bergen Art Museum, Norway

An important outlier is the section ‘The World Upside Down’, focusing on Peru and curated by artist Sandra Gamarra Heshiki, in which almost all the works on display are inverted, from Katatay (To Tremble, 2007), Alfredo Márquez’s neon prints of passport photos of Indigenous people who disappeared during Peru’s violent civil war (1980–2000), to Venuca Evanán’s embroidered images of feminist Indigenous leaders, Las Varayuq (The Varayuq, 2019). At the opening, Gamarra Heshiki explained to me how Indigenous peoples in Peru are constantly balancing two worlds: their own and a subverted one, referred to as pachakuti, which is dictated by Western coloniality. Focused on portraiture, her section critically engages the right to self-image, while also confronting viewers with the ongoing violation of Indigenous people via the Western gaze.

‘Indigenous Histories’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: Kode Bergen Art Museum, Norway

There is no denying that ‘Indigenous Histories’ is an impressive and well-intentioned undertaking. Despite its remarkable cross-section of artists, however, I couldn’t help but feel that its curatorial vision wasn’t bold enough. Whereas the show’s incarnation at MASP served as the conclusion to a year of exhibitions platforming Indigenous artists, this iteration stands alone at KODE, making it feel oddly detached from the rest of the museum’s programme. Wouldn’t it be more meaningful if touring projects such as this one came with a responsibility to commit to showcasing Indigenous practices beyond the exhibition’s run, as well as to ongoing research, in all participating venues? Displays of diversity are, on their own, not enough; it is only through dialogue and structural change that Western museums can truly embrace the process of decolonization.

‘Indigenous Histories’ is on view at Kode Bergen Art Museum until 28 August

Main image: ‘Indigenous Histories’ (detail), 2024, installation view. Courtesy: Kode Bergen Art Museum, Norway

Sofie Krogh Christensen is a writer and curator. She is based in Berlin, Germany.