A Space of Reimagining: Discussion with “Woven Being” curatorial team

The Block Museum of Art is in the midst of researching and planning a 2025 exhibition with the working title Woven Being: Indigenous Art in Chicagoland. The exhibition planning process has centered Indigenous methodologies that prioritize collaboration, reciprocity, and sustained dialogue. This includes planning by a curatorial team including; Jordan Poorman Cocker ([Gáuigú (Kiowa)), Terra Foundation Guest Co-Curator); Lois Taylor Biggs (Cherokee Nation and White Earth Ojibwe, Terra Foundation Curatorial Research Fellow); Kathleen Bickford Berzock (Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs); Janet Dees (Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art).

We sat down with this group to learn more about how the shared process has been central to their thinking, and how it might be institutionally transformative.

I was wondering if you might start just by sharing a bit about how you work together as a collaborative group.  What does it mean to curate and explore this project together?

Lois: That’s a big one.

It is!

Jordan: For me, as a co-curator, something that’s important about this project is to really think about dismantling that Western curatorial practices and hierarchies.  Re-examining the curator as the expert in the Western museum model and reframing Indigenous curatorial practices focused on reciprocity and equitable distributions of power and voice by using collective workflow processes. I think The Block is a special institution in really creating space for non-Western working models.

Janet: I think one of the things that it has meant is that things take more time, and you move a little bit more slowly than you might be used to with a project where there’s a sole curator because you have to build in that time for discussion and for coming to consensus. We build in that process of having more than one person review, whether that’s developing communications with other artists or with other colleagues. With grants that we’re writing and with creating a work plan going forward, there’s a collective review process so that everyone feels both that their insights are reflected and then [considered in] the way that we move forward.

And is consensus a goal of this structure? How do decisions move forward?

Jordan: For me, it’s not a consensus model. It’s more about facilitating the opportunity for open and honest discourse. From my work, it really comes from the Indigenous methodology called talanoa, an oral histories methodology that invites collaborators that are participants to each have an opportunity to contribute to an ongoing or unfolding discourse. Whether the contribution is a challenge or a redirection, the opportunity is facilitated. In terms of moving forward, there happens to be consensus and harmony within our curatorial team, which I appreciate, but that’s not the point. That model for me is considering the indigenous value of sense of self and the way that we operate within communities, the responsibilities that we have to community members, and the ways that that responsibility is enacted…

This is an interesting distinction.  When we think of collective, we often think about equalizing power toward a shared singular goal. The idea about clearing space for voice, no matter what that voice brings to the conversation, is a different way of thinking.

Jordan:  This approach was utilized in the visioning community sessions held with advisors and community members over the last two years, Wherein some folks laid down challenges or voiced concerns regarding content they don’t want to see, hear, or feel within the exhibition. Providing the opportunity for feedback is its own goal.

Lois: I think another element that has informed the work together and informed that discourse is the shared conceptual ground of the project in terms of positionality and the work we’ve been doing to understand this place, to understand our site and its entangled histories. Really knowing where we are and what our responsibilities are. I think having a shared ground creates a space where discourse can happen, and we can know what voices need to be brought in. We know the ways that we need to think in relation to the specificity of where we’re working. I think that this plays a big part in that collective thinking, just that orientation to place and to the history of the site.

Kathleen: In the past, I’ve had conversations with colleagues who feel that projects risk getting watered down when you add more and more voices.  I think a project like this really shows how when you make space for different points of view, you just build out, you add. It’s just value added to the project. And I think that [includes] making sure that you are recognizing what each individual has to bring uniquely to a project.I agree with Lois that our collaboration has gotten stronger over time as we’ve built more of a shared foundation.  I remember when we first started working together as a group, and there was this kind of moment where it was like, “Who’s going to run the meeting?” These are practical questions.  None of us wanted to bulldoze in and take control of the meeting.

Jordan: I remember you just asked!  You asked me – “Do you want to be the facilitator?  We still have to have someone!” 

I agree! I think this is a practical question we all might have about your work together.  How does the ideal of the collective sit against the reality of the daily work.

Lois: It really depends on finding people’s strengths.  What are people excited about?

Kathleen:  We’re also in an intergenerational group. We have different backgrounds, different experiences, and so finding out what each of us brings to the table and making space for each other is crucial.

Lois: I love what you said, too, about that mistaken concept that collective work will water something down. That’s where the image of the spiral that we’ve been coming back to through our positionality work and our thinking about baskets has been really, really helpful. With the spiral, you go deeper and deeper in, and like in a basket, you’re moving through space and three dimensions. I think that kind of thinking about collaboration in a three-dimensional, spiraling way; it’s not flattening. It’s adding dimension. 

Kathleen:  And capaciousness.  It can hold more!

Jennie Brown (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi), Untitled black ash basket, n.d. c. 2000s, Dyed black ash bark, 4 x 3 x 3 inches Block Museum of Art.

Janet: I think when you’re talking about the idea of weighing voting power, I think that comes from a conflictual kind of worldview.  I think what’s important about the way that we are working is that it requires openness and non-defensiveness. It requires being receptive toward what anyone might share, whether it’s a challenge or a provocation, and then being open to having ideas shaped by everyone else’s ideas. What you end up coming to create is stronger, and is more tested, because you’ve had that space for discourse and for multiple kinds of contributions. We are thinking about the well-being of the collective project and not about individual ego or attachments to particular elements.

So ideas are not being brought forward fully formed and weighed against each other.  There is a permeability to each individual contribution.

Janet:   Yes.  They are being created in the process of dialogue.

Jordan:  Kiowa artist Teri Greeves – was a co-curator of the exhibition Hearts of Our People. She writes about this Indigenous protocol that is specific to Kiowa people but can also be found in many Indigenous cultures, of not speaking for someone else. It’s a disrespectful action to talk for or over people, with the exception of ceremonial contexts where orators are invited to speak on behalf of a family or group. This approach that we’ve adopted within our team is informed by  Indigenous ways of knowing and being, as well as operating a sense of cultural reflexivity, as Janet mentioned. It’s an opportunity for me as a co-curator to really be receptive to the context, and the stories that each of my colleagues brings to the table throughout the process.

Thank you, Jordan.  Within the model of this collective, you are working together with three Block curators, and we have the great privilege of learning from your expertise from outside the museum staff.  Could you share just a little bit about how you came to the project, what intrigued you about working with this team, and what it means to build a collective that includes individuals from both inside and outside an institution?

Jordan: I think something that intrigued me early on about this project and the Terra Foundation-supported work that the Block is undertaking is the organizations’ interest in adopting Indigenous methodologies of knowing and seeing the world. The norm around curatorial methods that are informed by Indigenous practices is more widely recognized in other countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  The recognition of Indigenous methodologies is rare in the Midwest and in the US broadly. There are very few Indigenous curators and art historians who occupy these spaces. It’s a small but mighty group. I was interested in The Block’s willingness to really create space for curating Indigenous art from a different lens as well as the openness for collaborative models. This exhibition offered a new challenge and an opportunity to expand my own research and practice working within the context of the Block Museum, within the Great Lakes region with an incredible group of colleagues.

This seems to relate to the conversation around place and positionality of location as being crucial framing to how the work develops.

Jordan: It’s interesting to think about the context even as we are developing the positionality statements and their scalable forms for this project of The Block and what’s known about it. Because in a place like Oklahoma, where I’m from, as a Kiowa woman and growing up there, the context is totally different. We do have urban native communities, but the whole state is checkerboarded as Indian Territory, rich communities, and reservations. The removal history is there, but the urban cities are also very much surrounded by home fires of over thirty different nations.In this positionality of The Block, there’s a long history of colonialism. There’s a long history of forced relocation. The Illinois treaties were being signed in the 1700s, which is a radical shift from the colonial history of Oklahoma. Recognizing and coming to new understandings about how land-based or place-based histories can reinform how to tell stories about Indigenous art is critical. – Integrating land-based knowledge systems like traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) humanizes not historical connections and disconnections to a certain place. I was raised by my mother, who was raised by her grandmother Alice Poorman Paddlety Toyebo with a relational worldview. Something that arises within these approaches is considering how collective and individual healing, intergenerational healing, can be tied to a basket, can be tied to a piece of beadwork, or a contemporary artwork. The artworks themselves have lives of their own. Shown with the appropriate narratives, these artworks can shift our thinking about the stories we tell and refocus viewers on the inextricable relationships, and deep responsibilities that we share.

Spiral “timeline” representing the layered site history of The Block, presented at Visioning Session

That is a hugely powerful role and responsibility for curation! It certainly frames the stakes of the work.

Jordan: No pressure!

This team is a year and a half into work on the project and into your collective thinking.  I would love to ask:  Where are you in the spiral of the project? Where do you see yourself on this path you are on?  Have you arrived anywhere different than you may have expected?

Kathleen: One of the wonderful things that Jordan brought with her as a starting point for us was to ask us to really dig deeply into the positionality of The Block.  Lois did a lot of primary research on that, and we started with identifying where The Block sits within the history of museums, within the history of Northwestern, within the history of Chicago, and within the history of the Great Lakes region. That has really been the foundational way of thinking, and perspective that we keep returning to in the project. It allowed us then to move into this new phase, which is becoming a lot more concrete: what is going to be in the exhibition? And what does a checklist look like? And what kind of graphics might we want? And what is the outline of the book going to be?  With a lot of exhibition projects, that’s where you start. And there’s this idea in curatorial practice, a lot of times you hear about, that says you have to start with the object.Within some curatorial methodologies, we work from different starting points and directions. It’s exciting now to see how that background work [on positionality], which has been so fundamental and important, is moving us into ways of thinking about what the exhibition will be.

Is it fair to say you can speak to the selection of artworks and objects differently by shifting your starting point and understanding your position?

Lois: Yes! Risa Puleo, who’s a recent Art History PhD student here at Northwestern, writes about curation as following a line of inquiry.  This really stood out to me. I have a literature, comparative literature, and literary theory background, and always loved writing about primary texts because you were guided by a question or the line of inquiry, and then you could dive into that object-centered work.It’s been interesting because I really see, looking from where we are now, that a lot of what ‘Woven Being’ has been so far is following a line of inquiry and starting with that question.  At our first-ever group meeting, Jordan posed the suggestion that we make a non-linear site-specific timeline of The Block. And that question, that inquiry, that primary research is what has driven the curating and is now starting to take us to the works that will be in the show. It is all coming from that thinking we’ve done together. That goes back to what we talked about at the beginning, “What is a collective, where are we working from?”

Janet: I’d like to pick up on Jordan’s idea. I think the people-centric focus has been a very important part of what we’ve been doing over the last year. Maybe in a traditional model, you’ve developed the exhibition, and then you’re thinking about, “Okay, who’s the audience for this thing that I have created?” Whereas the way that we have started is, “Okay, who are the folks who have a stake in this story? What is it that they want to see? What is it that they feel that we’re [The Block is] best positioned to do?” We create from that. The visioning sessions that we’ve had, first with the Northwestern Indigenous community, and then with a wider group of knowledge sharers, and then The Block staff – that was all part of that process and relationship-building.And it’s through those conversations that we think, “Okay, well then, this is how we should proceed. These are the things that we should look at.  This is a way that we can operate.” We also think carefully about “Then what do we have to do after?” I think that’s something that’s different in the way we developed the course of this project. It’s not only research but the building up of our relationships with each other and then our relationships with those layers of community that have stakes in the story that we’re facilitating.

There is a deepening of understanding of what the stakes might be for artists, for audiences, and for all kinds of knowledge-sharers.

Jordan:  Yes. Part of that is also considering non-Western concepts of time and our place in it. Just going back to the responsibilities that we have, something that we talk about often is conceiving of ways of creating tribal sovereignty. Sovereignty, even in a space like Chicago where there was forced removal, where treaties are not honored, in fact they’ve been dishonored for centuries. How do we enact sovereignty? I think that even considering those questions has manifested in interesting ways throughout this project.Thinking about non-linear time is also considering the history of occupation of this place, the lake fill, and that deep connection that Indigenous folks and communities have to place. Those connections to place are not only legally binding through the treaties, but they’re ancestrally binding. The responsibilities that tribes have to land, to water, to the lake, to the plants, to the animals that occupy these spaces, those responsibilities are deep.  Art forms, such as basket-making, reinforce those ways and knowledge systems. In a way, art is an extension of those complex relationships and can become a device for memory, can become a device for perceiving those connections, those responsibilities to the land.I think the consideration of time and recognition of time also plays a part in positionality. We’ve talked about this project as being one step towards Indigenizing The Block Museum and creating more space for Indigenous voices and stories to be heard from first-perspective lenses.

Kelly Church, Sustaining Traditions-Digital Memories, 2018, black ash, sweetgrass, rit, copper, vial EAB, flashdrive, 9 1/2 × 4 1/2 in. (24.1 × 11.4 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Decorative Arts and Crafts Endowment, 2020.49A-B, © 2018, Kelly Church

Janet: I think different concepts of time inform the process as well. It’s not just this linear progression. We are always circling back onto things as we’re moving the project forward. I think that’s also a different way of working, where it’s not just like, “We’ve checked this off.”  We are always saying, “Okay, we’ve got to this point. And then who and what do we need to return to?”

We have been talking about this process as a new working methodology.  However, when I hear you talk about the deep considerations of place and time, I also think about the adoption of a new way of seeing, a new perspective that can’t be unseen or unlearned and has implications beyond exhibition building.

Kathleen: Yes, I think it’s interesting how that’s being made concrete and being shaped by the way that the exhibition is coming together. We are using this collaborative artist model. It’s something that developed because of dialogues we were having with partners, in our visioning meetings, and elsewhere.We are working with four artists: Andrea Carlson, Kelly Church, Nora Moore Lloyd, and Jason Wesaw. We’re not going to tell a linear art history or histories of Chicagoland from an Indigenous lens. There’s nothing about this that is going to be definitive. It’s an ellipse. It’s an ongoing, spiraling thing. And so, each one of these artists is an entry point, in a sense, to a story that is multifocal and there are many other paths and voices that could be added to it.The artists themselves are thinking about where they sit within networks, where they sit in time, where they sit in space.  Each one of them is uniquely gifted at thinking in this way. And that’s part of the reason why we’ve ended up working with these artists, specifically. They’re going to be selecting their own work and work by others, both present and past, to create what we’re calling ‘Constellations’. That whole idea of these objects as beings and in dialogue within this unique way of thinking about time and place really will be made manifest. The relationships will be made tangible in the selection and presentation of the works in the exhibition and the relationships between our team and the artists, the artists with each other, and the artists within their own communities

.Jordan:   This project, is one step in the way of many steps at Northwestern. I see this exhibition as aligned with ongoing efforts by the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR) and others to create more opportunities for visibility and representation in this area, as well as an important way to tell those stories that are untold about this space, about this place, and about the people who do and have occupied it. One thing that was shared with us and offered generously by Jason Wesaw on a studio visit last summer was a beautiful telling of stories about his connection to land through the life of his grandfather.  He showed us this map that showed the territory of his family and how he lives in the house which belonged to his grandfather.  He spoke about the removal and returning his family to that space. He also shared with us pieces from his personal collection, beautiful baskets, and works by his daughter in his home studio. During that experience, something we talked about was how important it is to center the living relationships between objects and people. Larger institutions, often have this void when it comes to provenance. Who is this bag made for?  Who made it? Those stories are often not known, and sometimes they’re not even valued.  The museum as an empirical space is connected to the harmful colonial history of completely stripping the context away from different objects. The oral histories approach this exhibition grapples with endeavors to hyper-contextualize artworks and how relationships are just as important as the artworks themselves in terms of context, in terms of arts education, not only for native communities but for non-native communities as they come to relearn those histories about the place that they live, work, reside.

Janet: You are right, it’s not just a methodology, but rather a methodology informed by a particular perspective on the world. This process is not only about deepening a commitment to Indigenous art and artists in our program at the museum going forward, but also how is the process of working in this way changing The Block, and how we work overall. Megan Bang, Director of CNAIR, talks about the educational model of teaching from the perspective of being “Part of” versus “Apart from.”  I love thinking about how this might infiltrate all our projects.  What are the implications for the way we might work and be together within this institution?

Diagram: S. Lehmann, 2010

Lois:  Western, linear art history circumscribes the perspectives – the ways of seeing and thinking and being in the world – that are abundant in art. There is exciting potential in curating with attention to time, place, and kinship networks.  We can uphold the ability of a work of art to reflect specific Indigenous perspectives, speak to constellations of relationships, and in refusing a linear timeline of art history, get things moving and breathing again. Connected, constellated ways of thinking can shift the ground of art history and, in a broader context, change the way that things are done in education, curating, artmaking, learning, and being.

It’s a powerful argument for why this work takes the shape of an exhibition.

Jordan: I agree. We are in a space of reimagining. Indigenous Futurism, as a theoretical framework, as a methodological framework, has been emerging in the field, the phrase was first coined by Grace Dillon (Anishinaabe).

Kiowa author N. Scott Mommaday discusses the absence of imagination as a form of death. Imagination is an act of holding the past, present, and future mindfully. We are using the resources available in the capacity of an exhibition to really reimagine what that space might feel like, and what that experience might be, and offer that to visitors so that they might have an opportunity for reimagination as well. 

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