In conversation with Gloria Jane Bell, Assistant Professor of Art History

Gloria Jane Bell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History & Communication Studies at McGill University. Bell’s research examines art and visual culture of Indigenous people in the Americas. Her current focus is on exhibition histories of First Nations—Métis—Inuit arts, and how artists and scholars are challenging colonial narratives.

Gloria Bell received her MA from Carleton University (2010) and completed her PhD at the University of British Columbia (2018). Bell has presented at conferences in the fields of art history and Indigenous studies across Turtle Island. She worked as the web editor for the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective and in curation and collections management at the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. Bell has Métis and Celtic ancestry.

Why did you become an art historian?

I love artworks, fine art, and history. Studying art history allowed me to bring these together. I was taking different art historical courses in my undergrad, mostly from the Western canon. In my fourth year, I took a course on representations of indigeneity in museums and, very broadly, decolonizing approaches. That was when I realized many of the narratives around Indigenous arts needed to be re-written.

Having Indigenous ancestry and knowing there had to be more histories written about Indigenous peoples outside the colonial perspective—that really spurred my venture into graduate studies. My work focuses on making Indigenous art and histories more visible and countering the colonial hegemony of art history. There’s a lot of misrepresentation about Indigenous nations and a lot of stereotypes that we need to address and counter.

Is your research more focused on historical collections or contemporary art?

I really look at both. To appreciate the nuances of a lot of contemporary Indigenous artists, it’s important to understand the history and what they’re pushing against. Many contemporary Indigenous artists are responding to legacies of colonialism in their work—for example, Kent Monkman (Cree), who was recently shown at the McCord Museum, or Amy Malbeuf (Métis). These artists are revisioning the colonial archive. That’s what makes it a challenging and interesting field. We are questioning the nature of history and acknowledging it is constantly being reworked. That’s where interpretation comes in and the work of scholars and critics becomes so important.

Artwork by Amy Malbeuf

What do you have planned for your next classes?

I hope to bring my students on more museum and gallery visits. I’m excited to learn about cultural belongings in the McCord Museum—they have a large collection of First Nations, Métis and Inuit works. I’d love to get students thinking critically about how Indigenous artwork is represented in colonial institutions and how Indigenous knowledges create counter archives. Visibility is important to consider, but also invisibility and silencing. There’s a lack of recognition in the canon, a lack of knowledge around Indigenous arts. How do you write histories of Indigenous peoples and material cultures when their cultural belongings were seized, for example? From the late nineteenth century onwards under the Indian Act and the Potlatch Ban, many family’s materials were taken by the government and put into museums. Families didn’t have access to those cultural belongings for many generations and the process of repatriation is ongoing today. We should be thinking about that legacy too. There’s a lot of Indigenous history in Montreal that’s hidden in plain sight. There are these big silences and erasures happening, but Indigenous peoples have been here all along. I look forward to addressing this with students and Indigenous scholars here.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a book project called Eternal Sovereigns that looks at the history of Indigenous artists, activists and scholars in Rome from the 1820s until 2020 (or 2025, even.) Indigenous nations have long been traveling to Rome for activist and artistic purposes. A recent example is the Long March to Rome, which was an indigenous-led movement. I’ve also had a project in mind about the idea of nomadism for historical and contemporary First Nations and Métis artists.

You seem really interested in the way that art and histories travel.

Yes—and the idea of the scholar as a nomad. I’ve travelled a lot in my life, through a lot of Indigenous territories and communities. It’s been really inspiring and amazing.

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Interested in hearing researchers shed light on little-known Indigenous and settler histories? Check out The Secret Life of Canada, a CBC podcast that highlights the “people, places and stories that probably didn’t make it into your high school textbook.”