What does it mean to decolonize? This word has been used quite often in regards to recent cultural discrimination, but usually with little to no explanation.
On Friday, April 9, the LMU community tackled this topic by hosting two museum curators at the KaleidoLA speaker series: Dr. Rebecca Hall, curator of the University of Southern California (USC) Pacific Asia Museum and Dr. Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, the assistant curator of American art at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center.
According to Hall, her experience in decolonizing a museum includes creating comprehensive access to materials and highlighting a diverse group of perspectives within the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities.
“We've committed to [decolonization] by saying we're deconstructing Orientalism rather than saying we're decolonizing our museum because I think that the study of Asian art and the display of Asian art is really built upon the concept of the Orient and Orientalism and we want to break that down,” said Hall.
In an effort to deconstruct the negative connotation behind Orientalism, the USC Pacific Asia Museum has granted the public full online access to its collections to encourage education on toxic stereotypes. During the event, Hall discussed her role as not only a curator but as a listener to hear the needs of the AAPI communities and effectively address their issues.
In collaboration with the department of art and art history, the Laband Art Gallery started the series to spotlight artists who promote racial, economic and social justice topics. LMU's own assistant professor Dr. Melody Rodari kicked off the event by summarizing the importance of museum decolonization, especially since the recent increase in violence against Asian American communities.
"I want to remind students that museums are not neutral spaces and that their collections and exhibition strategies often reflect colonial legacies, particularly when dealing with works from the global south such as art from Asia, which is my area of expertise," said Rodari.
Alexander brought a different perspective, as the Cantor Arts Center is a 130-year-old encyclopedic museum containing thousands of years of art history. Decolonization can often be perceived as re-writing history, but Alexander asserts that the art community must abolish the unequal social structure and reform policies to achieve balance.
“If you're working in museums now and you want to do it responsibly, you have to recognize that the structure itself is built on a colonialist, imperialist model and a lot of the objects that are in our collections come from that very impulse,” said Alexander.
By recognizing and accepting artwork’s relationship with history, Alexander hopes to increase racial representation within the industry. However, many of the bigger institutions are not investing in artists of color despite their large budgets, making it difficult for BIPOC artists to gain exposure and build a legacy.
Alexander used the example of Bernice Bing, a female Chinese American painter who amassed an impressive group of work over her long career but struggled to get her paintings in notable galleries. After Bing’s passing, Alexander learned of her stunning portraits and brought the remainder of her work to Stanford.
“I just wanted to highlight Bing and think about working as an institution with one artist like that, and then thinking about all of the amazing Asian American artists out there who have not had institutions support them in any significant way, and what we can do in that regard,” said Alexander.
Through the small steps taken by curators like Alexander and Hall, the museum industry inches closer to a more inclusive culture where artists of all backgrounds can shine.