Baltimore Museum of Art ‘Indigenizing the Museum’

On April 21, 2024, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) launches the BMA’s Preoccupied: Indigenizing the Museum initiative with the opening of Dyani White Hawk: Bodies of Water, which features new and recent works from the artist’s ongoing Carry series. For works in this series, White Hawk (Sičáŋǧu Lakota) adorns large copper buckets and ladles with glass beads and long fringe suggesting arboreal root structures.

These works upend the long-held boundaries between fine art and craft traditions in museum practice and center Native perspectives on the significance of both functionality and artistry in material culture. In this way, Bodies of Water is an apt and compelling beginning to a series of exhibitions and projects that significantly enhance the presence of Native voices, experiences, and works across the museum. 

Preoccupied includes nine solo and thematic exhibitions, interpretative interventions across the museum’s collection galleries, the development of a publication guided by Native methodologies, and a broad array of public programs through February 2025. Nearly 100 individuals contributed to or are represented across this expansive initiative, which transforms not only who tells stories in museums like the BMA, but also what stories get told and how.

In addition to White Hawk, artists featured in solo exhibitions in Preoccupied include Dana Claxton (Wood Mountain Lakota First Nations), Nicholas Galanin (Lingít and Unangax̂), Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache), and Caroline Monnet (Anishinaabe/French). Monnet is a multidisciplinary artist from Outaouais, Quebec, whose work examines evolving cultural histories and blends traditional and modernist forms to create a singular visual language.

Her presentation for Preoccupied comprises a large-scale work commissioned by the BMA for the initiative, titled River Flows Through Bent Trees. It takes inspiration from the eel trap pots made by Indigenous people of the Chesapeake Bay watershed as well as the architecture of traditional Anishinaabe residential dwellings. Weaving together the forms and materials of these essential Indigenous structures and objects with her own visual and conceptual interpretations, Monnet transforms the museum’s gallery space into a celebration of Indigenous lifeways, past and present.

Among the thematic presentations is Finding Home, which examines Indigenous people’s powerful relationships with land and the idea of sanctuary. While Native communities hold a broad range of beliefs and practices, many share a fundamental understanding that humans exist within a larger ecosystem that must stay in balance.

Through works by such artists as Jeremy Frey (Passamaquoddy), Duane Linklater (Omaskêko Ininiwak from Moose Cree First Nation), Meryl McMaster (nêhiyaw from Red Pheasant Cree Nation, a member of the Siksika Nation, British and Dutch), Mark Tayac (Chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation), and Marie Watt (Seneca Nation and German-Scot ancestry), the exhibition explores the ways in which Indigenous artists maintain their community connections, lifeways, and sense of home in the face of generations of colonization and the pressures of contemporary life.

The exhibition includes a new commission by Tayac and several works recently acquired by the BMA as part of its longstanding commitment to expanding its collection with the work of Native artists.

Preoccupied also includes a film series curated by Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation and a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians) that will be presented continuously in the museum’s Black Box gallery. The series, Don’t wait for me, just tell me where you’re going, highlights five experimental films, including We Only Answer Our Landline (2019) by Olivia Camfield (Muscogee Creek Nation) and Woodrow Hunt (Cherokee, Klamath, and Modoc Tribes descendent) and all-around junior male (2012) and seeing her (2020) by Lindsay McIntyre (Inuk), among others.

Of the series, Hopinka says, “Blood is a gift, and the land is a gift, and our past is a gift. In the questions they ask and in the wandering they do, the short films in this gallery uncover and explore generational memory. They give thanks to those who are gone, those who are yet to be born, and those who are here living right now.”

Preoccupied was developed with guidance from the Native community and cultural leaders. The initiative began with critical listening sessions and dialogues with Native individuals in the Baltimore area and allies invested in the regional Indigenous community. A broader retreat in February 2023 further shaped the fundamental purposes and experimental approaches that underpin the initiative.

At the BMA, the work is being led by Dare Turner (Yurok Tribe), Curator of Indigenous Art at the Brooklyn Museum and former BMA Assistant Curator of Indigenous Art of the Americas; Leila Grothe, BMA Associate Curator of Contemporary Art; and Elise Boulanger (Citizen of the Osage Nation), BMA Curatorial Research Assistant, in consultation with a 10-member Community Advisory Panel that includes artists, scholars, designers, and community leaders.

Together, the many people engaged in this process have ensured a diverse and robust exploration of both historical and contemporary Native artmaking and perspectives.

 Preoccupied solo and thematic exhibitions (organized by opening date)
Dyani White Hawk: Bodies of Water (April 21 – December 1, 2024)
Finding Home (May 12 – December 1, 2024)
Enduring Buffalo (May 12 – December 1, 2024)
Illustrating Agency (May 12 – December 1, 2024)
Don’t wait for me, just tell me where you’re going (May 12 – December 1, 2024)
Caroline Monnet: River Flows Through Bent Trees (May 12 – December 1, 2024)
Nicholas Galanin: Exist in the Width of a Knife’s Edge (July 14, 2024 – February 16, 2025)
Laura Ortman: Wood that Sings (July 17, 2024 – January 5, 2025)
Dana Claxton * (August 4, 2024–January 5, 2025) 

Collection Gallery Interventions

Julie Buffalohead
(Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma), 'The Noble Savage,' 2022.
Julie Buffalohead (Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma), ‘The Noble Savage,’ 2022. Courtesy of Jessica Silverman and Sarah Thornton, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Rik Sferra

Preoccupied will also include interventions such as audio guides voiced by Natives in the region responding to works in the BMA collection, and in the labeling and display of certain objects across the museum that depict Native subjects and espouse colonialist perspectives. These interventions shift the interpretative voice for these works from white artists, curators, and/or observers of Native culture to Native leaders, artists, and experiences.

This important shift brings greater accuracy, encourages deeper understanding of these objects, and highlights the importance of incorporating Native community voices within the museum context. Some of the interventions are led by members of the 10-member Community Advisory Panel for Preoccupied, including Allison Kelliher (Koyukon Athabascan, Dena) and Bayley Marquez (Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians).

Among the works receiving new interpretative labels are photographs by Alma R. Lavenson (American, 1897-1989), including Wash Day, Taos, New Mexico, 1941 and San Ildefonso Indians, 1941, printed 1986; and the paintings Indians Hunting Elk on the Platte, 1865, by Alfred Jacob Miller (American, 1810-1874) and Luzanna [Lousuanna Lujan] and Her Sisters, 1920, by Walter Ufer (American, 1876-1936).

New audio guide entries are being created for the paintings Bull Durham, 1921, by Stuart Davis (American, 1892-1964); Hiawatha and the Great Serpent, the Kenabeek, 1867, by Thomas Moran (American, born England, 1837 – 1926); and A Tulip, a Carnation and Roses, with Shells and Insects, on a Ledge, c. 1630s, by Balthasar van der Ast (Dutch, born Middelburg, Zeeland, 1593/94 – died 1657, Delft), among other works.

The collection gallery interventions will remain as interpretative material beyond the duration of Preoccupied.

Publication

Preoccupied will also include the creation of a publication that embodies Native approaches to knowledge sharing, which will be apparent in its physical form and contents. The publication is designed by Sébastien Aubin (Opaskwayak Cree Nation) and takes its point of departure from the concept of controlled burns and small fires as a means of encouraging growth and new life.

The publication will feature scholarly essays by heather ahtone (Choctaw, Chickasaw Nation), Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche), and John Lukavic; a newly commissioned poem by Heid E. Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe); a newly commissioned comic conceived, written, and illustrated by Weyodi Old Bear (Comanche), Dale Deforest (Diné), and Lee Francis IV (Laguna Pueblo); and critical perspectives from contemporary artists.

Embracing Indigenous methodologies, the content will be further visually amplified through rich illustrations and photography, and experimental type, layout, and design.

Visitor Information

General admission to the BMA is free. The BMA is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours on Thursdays until 9 p.m. The Sculpture Gardens are open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to dusk. The museum and gardens are closed New Year’s Day, Juneteenth, July 4, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

The BMA is located at 10 Art Museum Drive, three miles north of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. For general museum information, call 443-573-1700 or visit artbma.org.

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