Eugenia C. Kisin

Assistant Professor, Gallatin

Award Information

2011 IDRF Program

AnthropologyNew York University (NYU)

Indigenous Sovereignties, Non-Secular Modernities: The Market for Northwest Coast First Nations Art

Indigenous social movements have had long histories in former settler colonies. But in recent decades, a new politics of recognition has emerged that hinges on expressive culture—art, music, and performance—to assert the continued value and vibrancy of traditional practices while demanding rights and sovereignty. Within these movements, indigenous peoples have complex affiliations in relation to the commodity market, including community, pan-indigenous, and religious identities that articulate with both modern ceremonialism and local Christianities. My project seeks to understand these contemporary indigenous cultural politics by focusing on how the state, the art market, and indigenized forms of Christianity have all been entangled in expressive projects of indigenous self-determination in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I ask how First Nations cultural activism in this urban setting negotiates within powerful networks of two seemingly unrelated social spheres: the secularizing art world and the religious spaces of Protestantism. In Vancouver, First Nations artists extend traditional uses of material culture, including object-enabled displays of power, to contemporary political acts of asserting claims to land. At the same time, Protestant religious institutions have actively encouraged First Nations art production as a viable industry, and many artists draw on their Christian affiliations in their work. Paradoxically, First Nations artworks are valued in galleries for both their secular modernist qualities and traditional “spirituality.” Through participant-observation, life histories, social network analyses, and archival work in artists’ studios, heritage institutions, and Protestant churches, I will examine how the politics, discourses, and processes of contemporary First Nations art production have led to a $100-million local market for Northwest Coast First Nations art—and how, on this market, cultural and monetary values might be interlinked.