Museums, Colonial Legacies, and Contemporary Art, Part 3: Expanding Modernism and Addressing Colonialism with Contemporary Art

October 12, 2020

By Saga Beus

“Primitivism” went on view at a MoMA that still adhered to its chronological “isms”-based approach to defining modern art, which posited a clear evolution from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism to Cubism, and so on. The exhibition was hindered by its focus on individual artists and on a largely Euro-American progression of artistic movements within Primitivism. Today, art museums are chipping away at this monolithic conception of modern art, expanding it both geographically and ideologically. In a more radical move that goes beyond mere inclusivity, contemporary artists are proposing a museum model that welcomes complexity and self-reflection, recognizing that understanding the history of museums and collections is imperative to grasping the history of art.

MoMA’s 2019 renovation and rehang is the most notable recent exemplar of an increasingly complex and more international story of modern art, a multivalent web of history rather than a simple linear thread. While MoMA’s reinstallation of its collection remains largely chronological, it is broken up with contemporary interventions and curatorial detours such as The Shape of Shape, an Artist’s Choice installation by Amy Stillman that groups a wide range of works in different mediums and styles, and from different time periods. A more global approach to modernism is evident in the presentation of Sur Moderno: Journeys of Abstraction—The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift (on view October 21, 2019-September 12, 2020); the announcement of a major gift of contemporary African art from collector Jean Pigozzi; and in the display of many works by East and South Asian artists such as Haegue Yang, Huang Yong Ping, Sheela Gowda, and Xu Bing. Visiting the new MoMA, I immediately spotted a connection with the Grey Art Gallery’s exhibition Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection (on view September 10-December 7, 2019), which similarly broadened the idea of modernism by pluralizing it, emphasizing the myriad manifestations of modern art that were not so much mimicking European movements as crafting unique and culturally specific threads. Jafar Islah, whose geometric paintings were included in the Grey’s subsequent exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s (on view January 14-March 13, 2020), asserted that while abstraction is a marker of European modernism, it is not specific to Europe and in fact has deep roots throughout the non-Western world.

Jafar Islah, Colors with Black and Grey, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 24 3/4 x 17 3/8 in. Collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE

Contemporary art has played a key role in critically examining museums and their role in forging an art history that is almost exclusively Western. On June 20, 2006, French president Jacques Chirac inaugurated the ambitious new Musée du Quai Branly (MQB) from a podium emblazoned with the words “là où dialoguent les cultures” (where cultures interact). The MQB intended to present non-Western masterpieces as equal to Western ones, and to right historical inequities in museum display through an innovative mix of science, technology, art, and anthropology. The museum’s founding was controversial from the beginning, with anthropologists and art historians clashing over how France’s immense collection of African, American, Asian, and Oceanian art should be displayed and contextualized. The resulting space, designed by leading contemporary French architect Jean Nouvel, was criticized for overshadowing the collection and creating a literal “heart of darkness.” A winding path carves like a river through the space of the main exhibition hall, with spotlighted works emerging from dimly lit spaces and contextual labels pushed to the side.

Installation view of Lena Nyadbi, Dayiwul Lirlmim (Scales of a Barramundi), 2013 (detail). Rubberized paint on roof. Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac, Paris. Photo: Cyril Zannettacci

While the MQB certainly has its faults and suffers mightily from the lack of initial consultation with the source nations and communities represented in its permanent collection, it also successfully employs contemporary art as an illuminating complement to its holdings. This effect is most striking in the aboriginal Australian paintings covering portions of MQB’s walls, ceilings, and roof. Lena Nyadbi’s roof painting, a detail from her work Dayiwul Lirlmim (Scales of a Barramundi), links the older works in the MQB’s collection to a living and continuous history of artmaking. In addition, her work casts a harsh spotlight on colonialism’s destructive effects on Australia’s indigenous communities. Dayiwul Lirlmim’s repeated arced lines reference the story of the Ngarranggarni (Dreaming) barramundi, who lost its scales as it escaped from a fisher’s net.[1] These scales then became diamonds, found at the Argyle Diamond Mine near Nyadbi’s ancestral home, which has displaced local indigenous communities.[2]

Kent Monkman, Resurgence of the People, 2019. From the series mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People). Acrylic on canvas, 132 x 264 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art., New York. Purchase, Donald R. Sobey Foundation CAF Canada Project Gift, 2020

Today, contemporary art interventions have become quite prevalent in both art and anthropology museums, with particularly effective examples in encyclopedic museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On December 19, 2019, a set of monumental paintings by Kent Monkman entitled mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) was installed in the Met’s Great Hall. The first work in the series, Welcoming the Newcomers, depicts Monkman’s gender-fluid alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle and other indigenous peoples welcoming hundreds of years of settlers, immigrants, and enslaved peoples. The second, Resurgence of the People, mirrors Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, which is on view in the Met’s American Wing. Miss Chief Eagle Testickle embodies the George Washington figure, guiding the boat safely through stormy waters. On a tiny island in the background, four heavily armed and armored white men brandish guns. With this installation, Monkman brings to the Met a complex perspective on indigenous experiences and resilience, confronting colonial narratives and looking to the future. Installations such as Nyadbi’s Dayiwul Lirlmim and Monkman’s mistikôsiwak highlight how indigenous artists are leading the way in reframing art history and unpacking its colonial baggage. If museums truly wish to achieve equity, however, the ultimate responsibility lies with each institution, which must critically examine its unique collection and collection history by engaging in depth with difficult and painful histories through the lens of marginalized perspectives.


[1] “Lena Nyadbi’s Rooftop Commission,” International Development for Australian Indigenous Art,

[2] Richard Howitt, “A Different Kimberley: Aboriginal Marginalisation and the Argyle Diamond Mine,” Geography 74, no. 3 (1989): 232.


Part 1 | Part 2

Saga Beus is a graduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She received an M.A. in Museum Studies from New York University in May 2020.