Wíw∂nikan. . . the beauty we carry: showcasing Wabanaki artwork

“Let’s think about the arbitrary-ness of statehood. . . [let’s think about] those people who have lived here for 15,000 years versus 200,” Diana Tuite, the College Museum of Art’s curator of modern and contemporary art said about the Wabanaki people (an Indigenous American tribe who occupied much of pre-colonial New England and southeastern Canada) in an interview with the Echo.

Tuite led a partnership with Wabanaki curators and cultural advisors to aid in acquiring and assembling the college’s current exhibition of Wabanaki art. A team of outside co-curators and community advisors, some from Wabanaki tribes, assembled the exhibit in the 16-month period from March 2018 to July 2019. 

“This is not the Colby museum’s exhibition,”  Director and Chief Curator of the Museum Sharon Corwin said. “This is the exhibition of the Wabanaki people, and the artisan cultural leaders, community leaders who were representing these tribes.”

Entitled “Wíwnikan. . . the beauty we carry,” this exhibit is the first ever contemporary Wabanaki art exhibit in an art museum. Wíwnikan (pronounced wee-WUH-nee-GUN) is the Penobscot word for “portage,” an idea which was central to the planning of the exhibit. 

“We kept returning to the waterways, so many of the objects, like the canoe, which is a major opening object for the show, . . . were central to our thinking,” Tuite said. That nearly 20-foot-long birchbark canoe, from the Penobscot Nation, is an immediate and obvious staple of the exhibit. 

“[The] idea of portage as a metaphor [is] navigating parts of the river that are impassable by working cooperatively with the others in your canoe to go around [an obstacle]. This idea of adaptation, and having to sometimes go around and maybe out of the way to go forward. . .felt like an ‘aha!’ moment,”

Tuite went on to bring the concept of adaptation into historical perspective. “That metaphor, I think, works beautifully on so many levels, but it certainly is a way to encompass, maybe not so explicitly, what happened with contact from European settlers and colonials.”

Following European settlement in the 1600s, the Wabanaki homeland—a vast expanse of land from New Hampshire to Newfoundland—became the battleground for French-English border disputes. After decades of grappling in their ancestral homeland with European diseases, hunger, and war, the Wabanaki population in this area was left depleted.

However, this exhibition is not one of death and despair; rather, according to Tuite, “[the exhibit] emphasizes the vibrancy of cultural production in these communities.”

“As we celebrate Maine’s bicentennial, this was a moment for us to reflect on [the fact] that there were people on these lands before there was a state called Maine, and in that context this exhibition has a resonance, an importance that feels worth considering as we think about celebrating Maine’s 200 years,” Corwin said. 

Maine was granted statehood as part of the Missouri Compromise on March 15, 1820. However, the Wabanaki’s use of this land predates any European settlers in the region. The College itself lies on ancestral Kennebec Lands. The Kennebec are part of the Eastern Abenaki tribe, which occupied much of central and western Maine. At the college’s 202nd convocation, President of the College David Greene recounted much of Mayflower Hill’s hidden history, which is marked by the persecution and suffering of American Indians in the area. Greene acknowledged the importance of remembering the past, good and bad. However, the Wabanaki exhibit is more of a celebration of the resilience of the Wabanaki.

“I think what is particularly powerful about [the exhibit] is it shows how alive these traditions still are, and how alive these cultures still are, and to have these contemporary artists represented in this museum is an honor and a privilege,” Corwin said. 

“Our hope is [that] this is the beginning of a sustained set of relationships with these communities and the museum,” Tuite said. “I think the idea being that we need to ask ourselves how we continue to exhibit this work, and grow the collection, and how do we continue to exhibit it as contemporary art, which is what it is. So really thinking carefully about what a longer-term commitment looks like is very exciting, and there’s everywhere to go from here.”

Corwin also spoke about her hopes for the future. “I want students to be a part of that effort [to continue to recognize our native communities] . . . that can have a real impact on how one feels about a place one might call home.”

The museum is open from 10a.m.-5p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 12p.m.-5p.m. on Sunday. Admission is free, and students are encouraged to pay a visit to the exhibit before its take-down date in January and reflect upon the history of the land that they now have the privilege of calling their campus.

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