Candice Hopkins: “Self-Determination Is the Basis for Any Decolonial Movement”

2022 Art Omi Artist Residents visit Forge Project, traditional lands of the Muh-he-con-ne-ok. Photo: Frances Cathryn

Executive Director Candice Hopkins (Carcross / Tagish First Nation) recently joined the faculty at the Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS) at Bard College, Upstate New York, in the newly established role of Fellow in Indigenous Art History and Curatorial Studies. Here, she speaks about Indigenous self-determination and the importance of this new collaboration for Native artists

Shanna Ketchum-Heap of Birds: What did you think of the Forge programme prior to joining?

Candice Hopkins: I helped design the programme at the Forge Project when I started there in July 2021. There are not very many Native-led organisations in the United States, so to imagine a fresh start was imperative. It is not strictly an arts organisation but also a broader cultural organisation: the Forge supports and collaborates with Sky High Farm, which is located on an acre of land at Forge Project, and both are committed to greater food sovereignty for members of the local and regional community. There are other public programmes dedicated to decolonial and non- or anticolonial learning, as well as a fellowship programme for artists. Forge’s openness means it can take different directions depending on the needs of artists (such as those working in ecological development) or even the needs of Fellows. They are also trying to meet the needs of guests and visitors who come, and they have a collection of works by living Native artists, the ultimate purpose of which is that the works are loaned to institutions or for scholarly study. They support artists who are working right now, because so much of what is considered our wealth (as Native people) is held as trafficable objects. Those are our ancestral belongings. So, we are interested in what artists are making at this moment. I consider it to be an activist collection, because many mainstream US art institutions have a terrible record of collecting contemporary Native art. It is a massive gap in art history. One of the goals of the Forge Project is to help correct that.

SKH: The Forge has collected quite a few living Native artists. How does the Forge’s programme implement decolonial or noncolonial learning? Is it based on the artists you invite as fellows?

CH: In terms of the collection, Forge currently has over 150 artworks, and it will continue to grow. In terms of programmes, we recently hired Sarah Biscarra Dilley (Northern Chumash) as the Curator of Indigenous Programs and Community Engagement, and she deals with public programming. One programme that recently finished is ‘Gentrification is Colonialism’, which is a series of panel discussions with Indigenous people and local activists and organisers who looked deeply at the history of displacement in the Upper Hudson Valley region, where Forge is located. For example, the Mohican people, who are Indigenous to that particular area, were displaced ultimately to Wisconsin, where they received land from the Menominee people. The Forge sits on the unceded lands of the Muh-he-con-ne-ok, or Mohican people. So, for the Forge, thinking of the longer history of gentrification and displacement of Indigenous peoples is really predicated on understanding and knowing that history of the area. Right now there are huge housing instabilities in the region, particularly in nearby towns like Kingston and Hudson. What we are really interested in is taking a broader view of some of these problems, because people do not always think that Indigenous history and perspectives can actually be illuminating in this type of case. We also do a lot of programmes that follow the lead of our fellows. For example, we did a ‘Sovereignty Event’, which was artist Tania Willard’s (Secwepemc Nation) name for a project that focused on locally foraged teas. Our role is not to educate non-Native people; the ‘land back initiative’ events, for example, are only for Native audiences. So, we are really parsing the difference between decolonial and noncolonial in that sense.

2022 Forge Project Fellow Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) performs at Time & Space Limited, Hudson, NY. Photo: Alekz Pacheco

SKH: It seems like the Forge Project is taking on a new role in trying to make sure Native people are self-representing while also speaking to issues that are important to the community.

CH: Yes, self-determination is the basis for any decolonial movement. It is not just about holding people to account. But we cannot always start at the lowest common denominator. We need people to catch up and we need them to catch up quickly. So we put the onus on the audience to do some of that homework, because we are not going do it for them.

SKH: I want to shift to discussing the Bard initiative. How do such issues of Indigenous self-representation figure in shaping the approach at Bard?

CH: This has been more than two years of different ideas, of institutional accountability – after waves of Black Lives Matter protests and institutions realising, particularly in the US, that they are essentially white-supremacist organisations, or that they at least uphold that. We realised that we could attempt to enact quite radical institutional change through a partnership between Forge and Bard. One of those involved naming: American Studies is now American and Indigenous Studies. There are cluster hires for faculty at all different levels, and scholarships (including living expenses) for Native students. There is also support for the recruitment of Native students, because Native students do not always know what opportunities are out there for them. And if they do not know then they are not going to apply. But if they also do not see themselves represented, people are going to feel really alienated when they come to a place. Bard College and Forge Project have announced a $50 million gift that will support transformational initiatives in Indigenous Studies at the college. The gift is a combination of a $25m endowment gift from the Gochman Family Foundation and a matching $25m from George Soros and the Open Society Foundation. There are funds for acquisitions for the library and archives, both at the Center for Curatorial Studies and at Bard College as a whole. I have not seen funding and initiatives like this that are focused on change and are Indigenous-centred, so our hope is that it can be a template for others. That is why we are trying to be as open as possible in sharing all the different initiatives that are bound up in this. I have to say, too, that from the beginning it was also built upon the good work that Bard was already doing with their Andrew W. Mellon grant called ‘Rethinking Place: Bard-on-Mahicantuck’. At the centre of it was the question of ‘how do we make land acknowledgments actionable?’ because they have become often rote, performative and not based on real collaboration or community engagement.

SKH: In what ways does this initiative promote Native approaches and access to art and education?

CH: I was at the CCS from 2001 to 2003. At that time it was a very different landscape. It was really me trying to convince people that there are still Native artists. Among the few artists they knew of were James Luna and Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, but beyond that there was not a lot of knowledge of art history or the history of the region at all. A lot has changed in 20 years, and that is really great to see, because it makes me want to continue to build on that: going from a place where there was a real lack to a place where we are really generating a community. I think the initiative is deeply transformative, especially at a small liberal-arts school. We created a timeline for all the goals we have for every year of the first five years. The intent was for this to be felt right away, and I am already seeing it happening. People are coming here; more Native folks are coming to teach and be engaged with postdoctoral students. It will be interesting to see what comes out of it and what students do, what impact that they make. I am happy that Forge could play a small part in that. Part of that is also thinking of Forge as an extended classroom for Bard and the CCS. When I was a student at the CCS, I did not always have the chance to meet artists in person, to see their work in person, but that is something that Forge can offer, which I think is quite special.

SKH: Why American and Indigenous Studies, and not, say, ‘the Native American Studies department’?

CH: The broader you can make it, the more different departments and areas of studies – like Bard’s Center for Human Rights, for example – find ways of having a relationship to the department. That allows it to be truly cross-disciplinary.

Artist Demian DinéYazhi’ (Diné), left, works with Matt Dilling of Lite Brite Neon Studio, Kingston, NY, on a commission for Forge Project’s collection. Photo: Frances Cathryn

SKH: Is the Bard programme going to collaborate with other Native art institutions, like the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, or places like that?

CH: Yes, they are starting collaborations with places like the Stockbridge-Munsee community in Wisconsin. Those are the folks whose land Bard College is on. We are doing more of those collaborations and initiatives at Forge with Native-run organisations.

SKH: Do you see this initiative between the Forge and Bard as institutions reaching out to wider networks of Native art-making organisations and schools?

CH: I think it already does, through the loan programme that we have, and through all the museums we are engaged with. But we are doing different kinds of collaborations, like with the book publisher Dancing Foxes Press in New York, and we did a venture at the Santa Fe Indian Market with the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts and the IAIA. It is definitely the beginning of those kinds of collaborations. But, you know, one of our first initiatives was to work with a lot of local organisations right in the Hudson Valley community.

SKH: Can you talk more specifically about your role at Bard?

CH: Absolutely. I am an adviser for students at the CCS, and I am coteaching an elective class right now in oral history, and then I will teach my first class in the fall. But the biggest project I am working on, at the moment, is an exhibition that is looking at performance and visual sovereignty in Native Art. That exhibition will open at the CCS in the summer. It is partially drawn from Forge’s collection, but the majority of works are loans from elsewhere. The genesis of the exhibition is a document called ‘Credo for American Indian Theater’, written by Lloyd Kiva New in collaboration with Rolland Meinholtz at the IAIA. They were trying to define at the time (1969) what New Native Theater was, but I think what they were truly defining was most of the premise for what we understand as contemporary art. I think this is a missing part of Native art history, so this exhibition will start there and then look at not only objects as performative but the way in which performativity is really a line through the development of Native art.

SKH: Do you think one of your long-term goals is to develop an Indigenous-centric mode of art pedagogy?

CH: I would love that. We’re making a book to accompany the exhibition, but not a traditional catalogue. Instead, it’s a reader on visual sovereignty and performance in Native art comprising 13 republished essays, four newly commissioned essays and six oral histories; I want something that has a long shelf life beyond the show itself. From the beginning we wanted something authored by Native folks for all audiences. I think in Native art history most books, articles and essays are written by others, or non-Natives. I think it is time for that to start to shift. We also have so many [Native] artists in their seventies and eighties, and their art histories still are held orally, too, so we need to find ways of documenting them, and I hope this book will be one small step towards getting those histories out into the world.

Candice Hopkins is executive director of Forge Project and on the faculty at the Center for Curatorial Studies Bard, both in Upstate New York. The exhibition Indian Theater, curated by Hopkins, will open at the CCS this summer

Shanna Ketchum-Heap of Birds (Diné / Navajo) writes about contemporary Native American / Indigenous visual artists and theatre and performance studies

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