ARIA Spotlight: Jocelyn Campo

This summer, my ARIA project was to create guidelines for displaying Indigenous artwork and objects at McGill's Visual Arts Collection. As the VAC expands and the global art world becomes more inclusive, it is essential to consider the display of objects when designing exhibitions. For instance, it is essential to create dialogue with Indigenous individuals. Not consulting Indigenous individuals and communities in museum display and artwork can create misleading, inappropriate, and incomplete stories.

My practice consisted of attending exhibitions showing Indigenous pieces across Montreal to study how they presented their works, the curatorial team, as well as the intended purpose of the exhibitions. In total I attended seven exhibitions: McCord’s Indigenous Voices, the World Cultures Gallery at the Redpath, La Guilde’s Looking Inside and Material Trilogy, as well as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Thought and Splendour of Indigenous Colombia, Wolves: The Art of Dempsey Bob, and Takuminartut. I created a detailed report for each exhibition I attended. Finally, I compared these displays to the ones created by the Visual Arts Collection. The goal of my research is to foster a more inclusive environment at McGill University by creating guidelines for future curatorial projects.​

To start, when putting together an exhibition of Indigenous content, speak with an Indigenous individual about respectful display. For example, when La Guilde put on ᐃᓗᒻᒧᑦ ᑕᑯᓂᐊᕐᓂᖅ or Looking Inside, they collaborated with Napatsi Folger, an Inuk writer and artist. Folger served as a guest curator for the exhibition. McGill is lucky enough to have the Indigenous Studies and Community Engagement Initiative (ISCEI), so I strongly encourage collaboration with this department in the future. For instance, ISCEI features artists- and writers-in-residence, visiting elders, and knowledge holders. Encouraging this collaboration with Indigenous individuals on campus harbors a more welcoming and inclusive environment for not only McGill faculty, staff, and students, but Montrealers as a whole.

Next, there is the question of language. At the Gelber Law Library, McGill has translated the wall texts and labels into the language of the artist, in this case, Inuktitut. The VAC should stick with this policy in the future. When writing an exhibition’s text, it is important to consider the audience and purpose. For example, the McCord Stewart Museum’s exhibition Indigenous Voices of Today: Knowledge, Trauma, Resistance was made for all Indigenous individuals. Because of this, they translated the section titles into different Indigenous languages. They did not translate entire bodies of text into Indigenous languages, however.

In addition, there is the dilemma of the glass case. In museums and galleries, curators will place objects in a display case for an exhibition. Critics of the glass case say that it cages the work and turns it into a specimen. But in a museum setting, the glass case around an object is meant not only to protect the object, but as a sign of respect. When I attended Indigenous Voices, I was concerned by the multiple objects with no labels nor cases. ​Though museums are grateful to their visitors, they should not touch the objects. Leave the handling to the professionals. Though I encourage audience interaction, the matters get complicated when insurance and preservation are considered. We want to keep these objects for as long as possible so their beauty and history can be appreciated.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. In McGill’s Department of Family Medicine, there is a dedicated room for activities surrounding Indigenous health and community outreach within the health sector. There is a Kwakwaka'wakw talking stick resting on the wall in this room. Because this is a room designated for Indigenous individuals, the VAC felt it was inappropriate to lock the object in a glass case.

I recommend that the VAC engage with their audience through events, classes, and talks. Events like Arjuinnata at McGill, which was an event series highlighting Inuit excellence, achievement, and perseverance in 2022 should become more commonplace. ​The VAC also regularly holds Destress-and-Sketch events, where guests are encouraged to sketch an artwork. This is a great way to interact with pieces without disturbing them.

During my research, we decided that the Visual Arts Collection should prioritize the display of contemporary Indigenous art. Objects that were not produced to be fine art are being reconsidered. For instance, it might be inappropriate to have a functional tool displayed alongside fine art because this could result in the exhibition appearing ethnographic or othering. It is also essential to consider if pieces were made with the intention of a tourist buying them, as much of our Ainu art collection is the result of. Though artists do need to make money, this tourist art might be self-exoticizing or playing into stereotypes.

My ARIA research stemmed from my previous experience working in an Indigenous contemporary art gallery in Buffalo, NY. After speaking with Gwendolyn Owens, we decided that the Visual Arts Collection would benefit from the research of Indigenous art. In 2013 and 2019, the VAC received a generous donation from Dr. Joanne Jepson, which strengthened our collection of Indigenous objects.

This research will lead to more thoughtful and sensitive displays of Indigenous art on McGill's campus. Who curates the works, the languages the text is in, as well as how the objects are displayed can completely change the meaning of an exhibition.​ In the future, I hope for more collaboration between the McGill Visual Arts Collection and the McGill Indigenous Studies and Community Engagement Initiative. The Visual Arts Collection also looks to continue its Curatorial Internship for Indigenous Art.

I am grateful to the Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation for generously funding my work at the VAC. The ability to speak with experts in their field like Gwendolyn Owens, Jessica Régimbald, and Michelle McLeod greatly benefitted my research.

In the future, I hope to branch out and work in a gallery or auction house. The Visual Arts Collection has allowed me to develop my skills relating to research, database management, arts administration, and art handling. These skills are highly transferable and will benefit me for years to come. Not only did I work on my ARIA research project, but I assisted in the campus loans program and the 2023 art survey. Participating in the daily activities of the collection helped me understand how an arts organization is operated. I am greatly interested in this subject, hence my minor in social entrepreneurship. Working at the Visual Arts Collection has been the perfect culmination in my academic and professional interests.

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