This week marks the City of Minneapolis’ first recognition of Indigenous People’s Day, as decreed last April by City Council “to reflect upon the ongoing struggles of indigenous people on this land, and to celebrate the thriving culture and value that Dakota, Ojibwa and other indigenous nations add to our city.” Although the city still recognizes the federal holiday of Columbus Day for legal purposes, the Twin Cities have one of the largest and most diverse urban American Indian populations and government recognition of Indigenous People’s Day acknowledges both the importance of retelling American history and the need to address the social and political issues that native people face today.
Nationally, the movement to reconsider Columbus Day gained steam in the late 1980s and early 1990s as preparations began for the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. As numerous grandiose events were proposed in conjunction with the quincentennial, including a World’s Fair that never transpired, Native Americans and indigenous rights groups were engaged in an ongoing critique of Columbus’ legacy. They sought ways to educate the public pushed for the amplification of a revisionist history that forced reexamination of colonialism and privileged indigenous rights and marginalized perspectives. New terminology emerged in academic literature to describe Columbus’s expedition, with “encounter” becoming the preferred noun for what was otherwise referred to as “discovery” or “conquest.”Although popular history maintained the image of Christopher Columbus as a European hero who changed the course of history, an increasingly large group sought to critique his legacy and assign 1492 as the beginning of an indigenous genocide.
Contemporary artists have been engaged in many of the conversations around postcolonialism and revisionist history, as evident in the projects described below. Through pointed juxtaposition with images of oppression, corruption, and conquest they recast the notion of the hero, subvert the monumental and mythic, and suggest alternative narratives that grant agency to formerly marginalized peoples.
Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, 1992
In 1992 Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco performed Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West as part of the exhibition The Year of the White Bear at the Walker. As a response to widespread commemoration of the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s arrival to the Americas, The Year of the White Bear sought to make visible the legacy of colonialism in the wake of the Columbian encounter, especially in regards to the captivity, exploitation, and abuse of indigenous people. Though conquest and genocide were at the forefront of revisionist histories of Columbus’s encounter, his legacy as it pertains to human display remains often overlooked. In 1493 Columbus returned to Spain and brought back with him several Arawaks, one of whom was left on display at the Spanish court for two years. Like centuries of indigenous people that followed, he was intended to perform both an educational and entertainment function within the court, by providing opportunity for aesthetic contemplation and scientific analysis. Two years after his arrival to Spain he died, purportedly of sadness.
Dissatisfied with the level of public discourse around Columbus’s legacy, Gomez-Peña and Fusco created a performance that recreated and critiqued centuries of human display and objectification under the guise of science and entertainment. Rather than revisit historical records of human exhibitions authored by observers and anthropologists, Fusco and Gomez-Peña sought to create an account of these ethnographic displays from the perspective of the performer. During the performance Gomez-Peña and Fusco presented themselves as members of the fictional Guatinaui tribe, inhabitants of an uncolonized island in the Gulf of Mexico. Wearing leopard print loincloths and artificial feathers while contained in a gilded cage, the artists told stories in a made up language, performed fictionalized ritual dances, and ate bananas fed to them by docents/zookeepers. Despite exaggerated theatrics and outlandish costumes and props, many museum visitors believed the performance to be authentic and reacted accordingly. Over its two-year run in venues ranging from natural history museums to biennials, the performance was largely met with confusion and anger from critics, museums, patrons, and visitors. (The Walker was one of only two venues where the work was contextualized as art.) Within the cage, the artists were subjected to racist taunts, violent attacks, and aggressive heckling, yet never broke character or ended the performance.
Allora & Calzadilla, Chalk Monuments, 1998
Artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla create socially engaged art that is not constrained to any medium or style. Instead, the Puerto Rico–based artists address themes such as history, science, politics, and economics in subversive, conceptual works that blur distinctions of art and activism. They began to develop Chalk Monuments while working with educators in San Juan in 1988. The small sculptures are made after larger monuments, then miniaturized and recast in chalk. The first iteration of the project included well-known public statues of Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer and first governor of Puerto Rico. Allora and Calzadilla play with monumentality and ephemerality through scale and use of materials, rendering objects that once seemed permanent and behemoth small and fragile. The chalk monuments are intended for classroom use so as to spur conversation with students about the history of Puerto Rico, sociopolitical issues, and colonialism. (Read our 2004 interview with the artists, conducted during their Walker residency.)
James Luna, Take a Picture with a Real Indian
Luiseño artist James Luna performed Take a Picture with a Real Indian on Columbus Day 2010 in Washington, D.C., as part of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s exhibition Vantage Point: The Contemporary Native Art Collection. Since the 1980s Luna has created performances and installations that present pointed critiques of the representation and objectification of Native American cultures in the United States. Often using his own body in his work, the artist is perhaps best known for the 1985–1987 installation Artifact Piece, wherein he wore a loincloth and lay still inside a glass vitrine beside a label; nearby cases contain personal effects displayed with similar museum conventions. The work sought to critique the tendency of museum exhibitions to portray Native American peoples as frozen in time, if not extinct, rather than as contemporary people navigating modern culture.
In Take a Picture with a Real Indian Luna stands in front of the Columbus Fountain outside of DC’s Union Station. Inspired by tourist vendors who sell photo-ops with cardboard cutouts of the President in front of the White House, the artist announces his presence by stating, “Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture here, in Washington, D.C., on this beautiful Monday morning, on this holiday called Columbus Day. America loves to say ‘her Indians.’ America loves to see us dance for them. America likes our arts and crafts. America likes to name cars and trucks after our tribes. Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture here today, on this sunny day here in Washington, D.C.” Passerby are eventually drawn in and pose for photographs, with crowds building upon themselves and mass participation absolving any shyness or anxiety. The artist views his audience as participants in the performance and describes their shared experience as a dual humiliation. After enduring uncomfortable posing, culturally insensitive remarks, and racist insults, the performance concludes when the artist has become too angry or humiliated to continue.
Luzinterruptus, Colón Washes Whiter
Madrid art collective Luzinterruptus has used Columbus and his effigy as symbols for government corruption. In 2013, the anonymous group, known for using recyclable material in ephemeral installations, staged a public art intervention at the former site of a monument to Christopher Columbus that had been mysteriously moved several blocks away. The piece, titled Colón Washes Whiter, was a tower composed of containers of Colón laundry detergent and made use of the platform where the sculpture had originally stood. (In Spanish, Christopher Columbus is known as Cristóbal Colón.) Although the use of laundry detergent was meant as an allegorical reference to dirty money and the $5.3 million cost of relocating the monument to a more prominent location, its titular reference to the product’s slogan belies the notion of whiter as better, an ideological thread of colonial thought still pervasive in much of Spain and Latin America. The duplicitous message of the work serves to question the intentions of the Spanish government, both for incurring exorbitant costs in the middle of a financial crisis but also for continuing to perpetuate the idolatry of a much maligned figure from the era of the conquistadores.