Face to Face

The history of European and US museums is intimately tied to the history of Western colonialism, from the acquisition of objects that fill present-day collections to the ways in which art, cultures, and people are represented and understood. While approaches to collecting and displaying objects have transformed over the years, echoes of the colonial past remain with us today. Drawing on art from the Tang collection, this exhibition seeks to bring you “face to face” with the legacy and impact of our colonial histories. 
This exhibition challenges deeply ingrained European and US-centric ways of seeing, studying, and understanding art and objects. We endeavor here to highlight the artworks and narratives created by traditionally underrepresented people who represent themselves and their communities. The exhibition also reveals the depth and complexity of the narratives and issues advanced by these artworks and highlights how these works are entwined with a colonial legacy. With this exhibition, we invite you to reflect on the power of museum encounters and how they shape ways of learning and knowing. How can museums become spaces for complex and potent face-to-face engagement with these evocative objects and crucial stories?
Exhibition Name
Face to Face
Exhibition Type
Student Curated
Group Exhibitions
Apr 27 - Jul 16
Face to Face is curated by students in Art History Associate Professor Saleema Waraich’s class “Decolonizing the Museum: Addressing Systemic Racism and Promoting Social Justice.”
Artist once known, Atong Atem, Martine Gutierrez, Bushra Junaid, Zanele Muholi, Wendy Red Star, Shahzia Sikander, Sanlé Sory, Tuareg creator once known, Carrie Mae Weems
Anchor name: Labels
A black-and-white photograph shows a crowd of people walking up the steps of a large classical-style building while a figure in a long modest black shift stands watching the crowd.
Carrie Mae Weems, When and Where I Enter the British Museum, 2006, digital print, 29 ½ x 19 5/8 in., Tang Teaching Museum collection, Gift of Ann and Mel Schaffer Family Collection, 2017.22.12

Carrie Mae Weems, When and Where I Enter the British Museum

Carrie Mae Weems, a contemporary American artist, places herself into the narratives of her photographs. When and Where I Enter the British Museum is part of a series of images taken outside some of the world’s most famous museums. In this series, Weems confronts the power dynamics of such institutions, imposed by the physical architecture, embedded social hierarchies, and class systems. Western museums, such as the British Museum, are often perceived as impartial collections of knowledge, despite being products of colonization, enslavement, and privilege. When museums do not acknowledge and address these histories of collection and display, they perpetuate a hegemonic narrative by reinforcing practices tied to imperialism. Weems challenges viewers to recognize whose stories are being told inside museums.

Weems, an African American woman, stands facing the British Museum, daring the institution to somehow confront and right its wrongs—regarding museum display, privilege, participation, belonging, and more. A banner showing the eye of one of Michelangelo’s statues, gazes toward the entrance of the British Museum, so that visitors enter under the gaze of a white male created by a revered white male artist. Do the large columns bar Weems from participation and belonging or is she refusing to enter under such conditions? Weems appears as a ghostly figure with her dark clothing and static posture: does her silhouette evoke the words of author Avery Gordon, by being “that which makes its mark by being there and not there at the same time”? With When and Where I Enter, viewers are asked to question how personal identity is shaped by institutions that often remain unquestioned and unchallenged. When and where have you felt prevented from feeling comfortable and expressing yourself?

—Chiara Garcia-Ugarte ’25 and Jae Hymer ’25

Wendy Red Star, Pushdot Studios, Spring [from Four Seasons], 2006, archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag, 23 x 26 in., Tang Teaching Museum collection, Purchased with generous funding from Ann Schapps Schaffer ’62 and Melvyn S. Schaffer, 2017.27.3
Wendy Red Star, Pushdot Studios, Winter [from Four Seasons], 2006, archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag, 23 x 26 in., Tang Teaching Museum collection, Purchased with generous funding from Ann Schapps Schaffer ’62 and Melvyn S. Schaffer, 2017.27.2

Wendy Red Star, Spring and Winter from the series Four Seasons

Spring and Winter—two from the series depicting the four seasons—take a satirical approach to the diorama style of display commonly found in natural history and anthropological museums. The constructed artifice of Spring and Winter—the printed backdrops, carpeting, faux snow, polyester costumes, plastic animals, and ceramic skulls—points to the materialism and exploitation of lands and visual cultures associated with Native tribes, which have been appropriated and commodified. Wendy Red Star asks viewers to question the fundamental pillars of colonization: capitalism, consumerism, and exploitation of materials, environmental resources, and most importantly, peoples. The artist’s use of self-portraiture allows her to choose how she is seen and presented, highlighting the historical lack of agency to do so in institutional settings such as museums.

—Kimberly Fragola ’23 and Martina Phelan ’25

Tuareg creator once known, Tent post (ehel), mid- to late 20th century, wood, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Ivy Becker, class of 1982, 1996.49

Tuareg creator once known, Tent post (ehel)

This ehel (tent post) is from the Saharan region of North Africa. When this ehel was donated to Skidmore College (later entering the Tang Museum collection), the only provenance information on the extant paperwork was “African (Niger/Tuareg).” Its date, use, and creator are currently unknown to us. Historically, museum collections and exhibitions of African objects have often used generalizations rather than specifics, unlike objects of the same period made in Europe or the United States, for instance, reflecting a constructed racial-cultural hierarchy.

Tents are gendered spaces in Tuareg culture: women own tents, while men own mud houses. This ehel, used simultaneously as a functional and decorative object, features a pointed foot that would have stood in the ground with a canvas draped over to form the tent. Tents serve as an important site in which many rites of passage occur, including weddings, baby name days, and funerary rituals.

Exactly how this object arrived in western hands is unrecorded. How can an object, whose cultural and ritualistic functions are no longer performed, retain its authenticity when displayed in a western institution?

This ehel also exists within an ever-changing discussion regarding the best language to use for artists whose names are not currently listed in museum records. Museums currently do not have a single agreed-upon term for referencing the creator in these cases. The Tang Museum variously utilizes the terms “unrecorded,” “unidentified,” or “artist once known,” depending on context, as ways to suggest the responsibility for identifying an object lies with the institution or collector, but importantly, that the creator is not necessarily intentionally anonymous. We have decided in this context to use the term “creator” as we do not want to assume that the creator would have identified themselves as an “artist” according to the western understanding, although we recognize that this piece was formally shaped by aesthetic considerations.

—Sasha Fishstein ’23 and Anna Stribrny ’24

Zanele Muholi, Kusile III, 2002 Cartwright, Cape Town [from Somnyama Ngonyama], 2019, gelatin silver print, 29 ½ x 20 5/8 in., Tang Teaching Museum collection, The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum, 2021.16

Zanele Muholi, Kusile III, 2002 Cartwright, Cape Town

Zanele Muholi is a South African artist whose work often examines topics of race, sexuality, gender, and activism. Kusile III, 2002 Cartwright, Cape Town is part of Muholi’s series Somnyama Ngonyama, which uses self-portraiture to comment on identity, race, wealth, and power. Here, Muholi represents themself dressed in a sash and headdress made out of paper money. Currency and wealth are important themes in post-colonial studies, as they directly connect colonial power structures with their local successor governance systems. Muholi’s embodiment of a fictional post-colonial ruler encourages interrogation of the long-lasting effects of colonization, and their attire connects this past to the economic present and the struggles that these countries face on the path to decolonize. The word “Kusile,” used in the title, is a Zulu word that translates to “it’s crazy,” and the figures printed on the currency are powerful men. Both of these details comment on the way in which today’s local elites perpetuate the colonial past and its practices, and on the continued strength of western influence. By using this title and associating it with paper money, Muholi asserts that even when a country enters a new era, the impact of the colonial past remains vivid.

—Ace Seltzer ’24 and Augusta Williamson ’25

Sanlé Sory, Mali djeli, 1984, printed 2017, gelatin silver print, 19 7/8 x 16 in., Tang Teaching Museum collection, The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum, 2018.13.5

Sanlé Sory, Mali djeli

Sanlé Sory’s Upper Volta Studio was a space where the artist documented the urban scene of Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, following the end of French colonial rule there. This photograph was taken thirty years after the region won its independence and became Burkina Faso, “the Land of Upright People.” Sory’s subjects played an active role in their own representation, choosing from a variety of costumes and backdrops to set a scene. On the left, a young man dressed in western clothes holds a US-distributed boombox, which represents the continuing impact of western economic and cultural influence on the Burkinabé people. Next to him is a Djeli, a keeper of oral histories, holding the Xala, an instrument played while recounting history. The Djeli represents West Africa’s freedom to create its own history free from French oppression. Together, these men symbolize the political, economic, and cultural revolution that occurred in Burkina Faso between 1983 and 1987. Led by Tomas Sankara, Burkina Faso sought to build a socialist future while preserving its rich Indigenous past. To do this, the new government broke off from the International Monetary Fund’s predatory loans. They successfully kept the money in Burkina Faso and dedicated it to the needs of the people. In this short-lived revolution, Burkina Faso became food self-sufficient, brought the literacy rate from 13 to 73 percent, and vaccinated 2.5 million children in two weeks. This photograph reveals the excitement, diversity, and contradictions of an Africa on the decolonial journey.

—Adrian Antonioli, ’25

Martine Gutierrez, Demons, Chin ‘Demon of Lust,’ p93 from Indigenous Woman, 2018, C-print mounted on Sintra, hand-painted artist frame, 43 5/8 x 31 5/8 x 1 5/8 in., Tang Teaching Museum collection, Tang purchase, 2019.29.1

Martine Gutierrez, Demons, Chin ‘Demon of Lust,’ p93 from Indigenous Woman

In this photograph, Martine Gutierrez—a queer multi-disciplinary artist—gazes intensely at the viewer while inhabiting the role of Chin, a Mayan deity thought to have introduced homosexuality to Mayan nobility. Chin inhabits a fluid gender identity, presenting as both masculine and feminine throughout Mayan mythology. When colonizers entered lands with such expanded conceptions of gender, they imposed a more rigid binary as part of their colonial policy. By embodying this genderqueer figure, the artist brings these historical forms of gender expression out of the past on behalf of those whose expression remains oppressed in the present.

The clothing style and accessories worn by the artist may initially evoke the image of the Mayans as savage and primitive, seemingly reinforcing what western viewers have come to imagine through movies and textbooks. However, a closer look reveals synthetic materials and artistic fabrication, including a fake bird and foil leaves. The inclusion of such modern materials points out the way our idea of what a “Mayan” looks like is constructed. These materials further remind us of how colonial expansion into Mayan lands eventually led to the destruction of their culture.

—Paul Seggev ’23, Mey Pugh ’24, and Connor Yackel ’25

Bushra Junaid, Two Pretty Girls, 2016, archival photograph and archival text printed on backlit fabric panel, 35 ¼ x 69 5/8 in., Tang Teaching Museum collection, Gift of Bushra Junaid, 2019.33a-b

Bushra Junaid, Two Pretty Girls

Bushra Junaid’s Two Pretty Girls reframes a 1903 stereographic image of two sugar plantation workers taken in St. Kitts, a dual island nation in the West Indies and former British colony until its independence in 1983. Stereoscopic images were a popular technology in the late 1800s and early 1900s that involved placing two images together on a small slide; the user could then insert the dual image into a viewing receptacle, a stereograph, and view the images in three dimensions. Images like those in Two Pretty Girls were taken with the intention of providing middle- and upper-class people in Europe and North America the ability to “explore the world” by observing various cultures in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia from afar. The Keystone View company, the manufacturer of the original image, was one of the companies that photographed many—mainly Black and Indigenous—people, for examination and display, leading to objectification, by North American and European viewers.

The original 1903 image is titled “Two Pretty Girls I Met in a Cane Field,’’ which foregrounds their location over their identity. Junaid enlarges the image and overlays the women with newspaper clippings from The Evening Telegram—a newspaper published in Newfoundland, Canada, during the same period. These clippings include advertisements for rum, tea, molasses, and sugar—the very products the women are producing. Through these interventions, Junaid recontextualizes the original work, making explicit the connections and legacies of the triangular trade of goods and bodies between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and emphasizing the commodification of women’s bodies and labor. By foregrounding these issues, Junaid, who is Canadian of Caribbean descent, asks us to see them as she does—as real people, ancestors who deserve names and histories of their own.

—Tori Adams ’24 and Mia Townsend ’24

Shahzia Sikander, Laumont Editions, The Quiet in the Land, Novice Chanton [from Portraits], 2006, pigment print on Hahnemühle paper, 14 x 11 in., Tang Teaching Museum collection, Gift of The Quiet in the Land, Inc., 2013.3.21

Shahzia Sikander, Novice Chanton from the series Portraits

Novice Chanton depicts a young boy named Chanton in training to be a Buddhist monk. The drawing is part of a project Shahzia Sikander completed while at an artist residency in Laos. As an outsider to Laotian culture, Sikander occupies the positions of both artist and spectator of Chanton, and of his religion and culture—roles she both inhabits and interrogates.

Novice Chanton embodies Sikander’s ongoing concerns with exploring identity as fluid and as beyond the control of any given person—whether the artist or the artist’s subject. Sikander also plays with western perspectives by visually deviating from western portrayals of the “eastern” world as exotic, colorful, and chaotic. Chanton’s monastic goals also complicate the portrait: the Buddhist emphasis on overcoming personal vanity is often inaccurately translated by the west into visions of generalized monks with no distinct personhood. The intimacy of this portrait combined with the lack of background information evokes the complexities involved in acts of representation, when one’s personhood is so affected by ever-shifting historical, cultural, and social contexts. Can one ever really know or represent another?

—Natalie Viebrock ’23

A photograph of a young, Black woman covered in black paint with green and purple flowers, leaves, and fruit draped around her neck and covering her head.
Atong Atem, Fruit of the Earth, 2016, digital C-print on Dibond, 45 x 30 in., Tang Teaching Museum collection, Tang purchase, 2017.12

Atong Atem, Fruit of the Earth

Atong Atem is a South Sudanese artist currently living and working in Melbourne, whose work explores a vibrant postcolonial, diasporic identity. Her work is diverse in style and subject matter: it is as surreal as it is serious, both colorful and monochromatic, concerned with the past and the future. Atem’s art, which often combines photography and digital or hand painting, frequently features herself and her friends as subjects. Atem is concerned with challenging colonial narratives about beauty, art, and self-representation, centering the perspectives and identities of Black individuals in her work.

Fruit of the Earth depicts Atem serene among faux fruit and lush greenery, the monochrome self-portrait digitally altered to add color to her living garland. Her eyes are closed, and she rests in seeming tranquility, enjoined with nature, evoking both peaceful sleep and death wreathed with flowers. Placing her own face and identity front and center, she defines her relationship to the earth according to her own terms, joyful and empathetic rather than extractive and exploitative.

—Eleanor Marks ’25

Artist once known, Replica of a Benin bronze (Head of Queen Idia), n.d. cast copper alloy, Tang Teaching Museum collection, Moreen O’Brien Maser, class of 1926, Memorial Collection, ML1982.296

Artist once known, Replica of a Benin bronze (Head of Queen Idia)

The title of Queen Mother (Ioyba) was first given to the sixteenth-century Queen Idia, whose political and strategic skills helped save the kingdom of Esigies from dissolution. The name Ioyba invokes Queen Idia’s political acumen, strength, and resilience. Originally part of ancestral altars and passed down from generation to generation as symbols of national identity and female power, busts such as this one honor Queen Idia and her contributions to the Benin Kingdom.

The bust reveals the Benin Kingdom’s rich visual culture of female rulership. The curvature of her crown comes to a head in a forward-point that distinguishes Queen Mothers from Benin Kings. Her crown, neck rings, facial features, and posture reinforce the female’s place in society as one of authority and power.

A product of Bini visual culture, Head of Queen Idia embodies the fight against colonial injustices and post-colonial pride in Nigeria today. In 1897, British forces plundered the Benin Kingdom and looted thousands of bronze and metal works. This violence disseminated Benin heritage across the western world. As a result, the cultural history of Benin is now in the hands of institutions and collections across Europe and the United States. While activists seek to repatriate Benin works, only few objects are currently in the process of being returned. Made from copper alloy, this bust is identifiable as a replica, yet it still draws attention to Benin’s fraught colonial history. What are the implications if museums allow space for reproductions as equal and regenerative art forms?

—Maddie Aho ’25 and Eloise Dreesen ’25

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