Art

Playful, Poetic Approaches to Decolonizing the Museum

At this critical juncture, Maria Hupfield’s work is a much needed disruption, to hold institutions accountable and in doing so help them stay relevant.

Still from a video work by Maria Hupfield (image by Dylan McLaughlin, courtesy the Heard Museum)

PHOENIX, Arizona — Maria Hupfield is an object maker, a thinker, an activist, a performance artist, an Anishinaabe-kwe, and a woman. Originally from the Parry Sound area in the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada, Hupfield has been living and making work in Brooklyn, New York for the last nine years, hence the name of her new solo exhibition at the Heard Museum: Nine Years Toward the Sun.

The title refers to being enveloped by the soaring towers of an urban city and overcome by a desire to look upward to the sky, to find something outside of oneself. While the poetic concept speaks to a transcendent truth, Hupfield’s practice is very much rooted in politicized brown bodies and the decolonizing of institutions.

Celebrating its 90th year of existence, the Heard is celebrating not by looking at the past but looking towards the future through an initiative that focuses on women indigenous artists. Famous for its large collection of American Indian art, the museum has evolved from a mostly anthropological museum to one that endeavors to give voice to the contemporary Indigenous experience. As more museums are beginning to examine their own biased practices and adapt to the expectations of a changing political landscape, the colonial nature of museums cannot be overlooked. At this critical juncture, Maria Hupfield’s work is a much needed disruption, to hold institutions accountable and in doing so help them stay relevant.

Maria Hupfield, “Double Punch” (2011), Found striking gloves, assorted gold-tone bells (collection of the artist, courtesy Craig smith, Heard Museum)
Installation view: Maria Hupfield, “Nine Years Toward the Sun” (courtesy the Heard Museum)
Installation view: Maria Hupfield, “Nine Years Toward the Sun” (courtesy the Heard Museum)

The entirety of the exhibition is inexorably linked to the body in context to Hupfield’s creations. The center of the gallery features a slightly raised platform with a series of simple wooden structures standing in for the human form, each one propping up wearable items that Hupfield has activated at various performances. “Golden Dollar (Sacagawea)” is a hood comprised of 500 US Sacagawea dollar coins — a direct reference to the 500 years of occupation on Indigenous lands. The hood, which alludes to a kind of chainmail, acts as both protection and protest.

Hupfield frequently uses industrial gray felt in her work, in order to nullify the patriarchal burden the oft-used media can hold. “Backward Double Spiral Jingle Boots” is made with the ubiquitous material adorned with tin cones, another of her recurring motifs that functions to establish her practice within the continuum of her ancestors. The cone-shaped ornaments, originally made from tobacco can lids, have been utilized by Indigenous people since the 18th-century and are present throughout other exhibitions in the renowned institution.

Installation view: Maria Hupfield, “Nine Years Toward the Sun” (courtesy the Heard Museum)
Installation view: Maria Hupfield, “Nine Years Toward the Sun” (courtesy the Heard Museum)

“Trophy Case” presents a playful take on archives, but nonetheless has significant ramifications. The case — which holds whistles made of bones, a coffee cup and headphones made of industrial gray felt, and other objects —  has holes drilled into the glass, as with all the cases in the exhibition. This intervention determines the objects as living and breathing entities and not just static mementos from a dormant culture, as objects tend to become within a colonial framework.

Installation view: Maria Hupfield, “Nine Years Toward the Sun” (courtesy the Heard Museum)
Installation view: Maria Hupfield, “Nine Years Toward the Sun” (courtesy the Heard Museum)
Installation view: Maria Hupfield, “Nine Years Toward the Sun” (courtesy the Heard Museum)
Installation view: Maria Hupfield, “Nine Years Toward the Sun” (courtesy the Heard Museum)
Maria Hupfield and Ginger Dunnill performing on December 5th, 2019 (courtesy the Heard Museum)

On opening night, Hupfield borrowed a two by four plank from one of her sculptures and performed a kind of sparring ceremonial dance with her collaborative partner. A procession followed back to the gallery led by the artist, where she proceeded to grab a microphone and colored ribbons from a different sculpture. Her partner used the microphone to sing a Hawaiian welcome chant as Hupfield gestured with the ribbons like burning sage so as to bless the gallery space. This event is now featured as documentation on one of three flat screen televisions, the other two still waiting to be filled by future performances by the artist.

Hupfield makes it unequivocal that all the objects in the exhibition are essential to her practice and not just to be appreciated from a distance. The audience cannot help but recognize everything else in the museum as intentional instruments to lives lived.

Editor’s note: Please note that physical viewing hours for this exhibition have been temporarily suspended in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Discussions around art and culture remain important during this time, so we have opted to publish this review to enable readers to explore the exhibition virtually as many of us continue to self-isolate.

Maria Hupfield: Nine Years Toward the Sun continues at the Heard Museum (2310 North Central Ave, Phoenix AZ) through May 3, 2020. The exhibition was curated by Erin Joyce.

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