Art appreciation (from afar) as settler ‘effective occupation’: Margaret Boyce, One Hundred Words for Conquest: Curating Arctic Sovereignty at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, PhD dissertation, McMaster University, 2019


Abstract: This dissertation examines a series of catalogues for Inuit art exhibitions held at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG), spanning from 1967 to 2017. I argue that the discursive conventions of settler-Canadian art appreciation, especially those geared towards Inuit creative production, have resonances with the political strategies that Canada uses to prove effective occupation—a term from international law—of the Arctic. My work intervenes in this context by showing how art appreciation encourages modes of effective occupation that are not obviously political, insofar as these modes operate in the realm of affect. I first develop a critical framework inspired by Glen Coulthard’s concept of colonial recognition politics, to demonstrate that there is an affirmative recognition politics at work in the WAG catalogues. I then theorize that catalogues’ tendency to oscillate between an ethnographic (contextualist) analysis and an aesthetic (non-contextualist) analysis produces a tension that orients patrons towards the North accordance with Canada’s position on Arctic geopolitics. Building on the work of Eva Mackey, I argue that a mixed ethnographic-aesthetic view of Inuit art activates a particularly expedient form of belonging from afar in settler patron-readers, whereby they are encouraged to feel as if they are of the North, while never having to be there. My third chapter attends to how the WAG narrates the dramatic social transformations that Inuit experienced in the mid-20th century. The catalogues implicitly invalidate many Inuit’s experience of settler-colonial intervention by suggesting that the move to sedentary communities, often at the hands of the settler state, was inevitable and even desirable. This work provides strategies for critiquing instances of settler benevolence that are unique to the art world, and offers a template for how to approach exhibition catalogues as a genre—both of which are areas of scholarship that have been hitherto neglected.

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