Decolonial Ways of Seeing (and Creating) an Exhibition

There is an awkward but perhaps healthy tension in the exhibition of artworks relating to resistance, indigeneity and repression.  As a mode of display that first began as cabinets of curiosities, exhibitions and museums have historically been a space for the colonial class to share the objects and artifacts of their conquest. Still, Terry Smith argues that since the 1950’s, “Art exhibitions have played a major role within colonial and national liberation struggles.” He argues that as decolonization has emerged as a major driver of social, political, and cultural change, “Survey exhibitions in major galleries and the biennial form itself became an important medium to both manifest and examine this world transforming force.”

While exhibition and biennials can certainly create spaces to “examine” and investigate the effects of decolonization, they can also easily become spectacles that lack the rigor or criticality needed to spark this deeper engagement. Derived from the Latin word exhibere “to show, display, present,”  or “hold out, hold forth,” exhibitions are quite literally a vehicle for viewers to see, look and sometimes even gawk. However, while seeing is an important element of the exhibition, I wonder if there ways we can encourage visitors to be seen?

As Kency Cornejo points out in Indigeneity and Decolonial Seeing, “Why is Indigeneity relegated to a romantic past, one that is to be depicted, that serves to inspire artists and that is only to be seen?” The distancing format of the exhibition and the literal distance between New York and Guatemala will be a challenge for creating an experience that does not simply reinforce this muted past. However, as curators and exhibition designers I wonder what the spatial, narrative and even performative strategies may be for moving visitors beyond this mode of passive consumption to one of a more embodied presence?

As Paul O’Neill states exhibitions can be, “Political tools for maintaining the status quo – modern ritual settings that reinforce identities, whether these be artistics, avant-garde, gender, racial, subcultural, regional, national, international, global, etc.” The exhibition thus still retains its original flair for divisiveness. Yet, at the same time, O’Neill acknowledges the emergence of a more dialogical approach, noting that exhibitions, “Have the potential to activate discursive processes that enable dialogical spaces of negotiation between curators, artists, and their publics.” In this light, exhibitions can be spaces that both close-down and open up new way channels for communication. How we create this openness in both our design decisions and processes will be an important question as we move towards implementation.

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