Symposium Talk

bauhaus imaginista: Learning From

Erin Freedman and Sebastian De Line in conversation

Sebastian De Line, "Examination Room" at the American Museum
of Natural History, 2018.

This is the transcript of a conversation between art historian Erin Freedman and the trans artist and scholar Sebastian De Line that took place during the bauhaus imaginista: Learning From symposium at the Goethe-Institut in New York in June 2018.

Erin Freedman

Hello everyone, thank you so much for coming today. Before we begin, I want to acknowledge the Lenni Lenape and the other people of this land, who for countless generations have gathered on the island of Manahatta to build their homes, their livelihoods and their belongings.

As Grant mentioned, we spent the last two days prior to the start of this symposium visiting museum collections. We looked not only at works by pre-Columbian and Indigenous artists, but also artists of the modernist period, like Lenore Tawney and Anni Albers, who drew inspiration from Indigenous artists and craftspeople.

For this talk Sebastian and I decided to go through a series of the sketches he made during our museum visits. We are not authorized, in fact, to show any photographs taken behind the scenes at museums, and this actually gave Sebastian the opportunity to render his own experience of what we encountered.

To start with this first image: here are two sketches Sebastian made at the American Museum of Natural History, in the galleries of the Eastern Woodland Indians. Perhaps you can tell us a little about this?

Sebastian De Line, “One dish one spoon” at the Smithsonian Institute, 2018. 

Sebastian De Line

She:kon1/Hello, my name is Sebastian De Line. My father was Terry Deline who grew up in Kahnewake,2 and my mother is Lynne Choo from Canton.3 So welcome and thank you very much for having me.

When I visited the museum, one of the first things I felt was that I wished to respond and draw images of objects solely from my own culture. So I chose two objects that are Haudenosaunee:4 this baby board and this spoon. The conversation I wanted to have relates to earlier conversations with Candice Hopkins about the word “object,” and how this word offers quite a challenge when thinking about how we relate to our belongings.

When I saw this spoon, I began thinking about the wampum, and what we call “one dish one spoon” wampum. What struck me was how this particular spoon was not with the bowl, you know? Coming into the space of the museum, I began thinking through what I had been taught by my family and what I’ve been taught in art, and how these are different; how we encounter art and how we are informed by what we see and what we understand.

The thing that was missing for me was the conversation, then, about the teaching around “one dish one spoon,” which is a wampum about the relationship between Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe and our territories—how we share a stewardship, keeping a balance and responsibility to our animal kinships, etc.

For me, it was as if there was a kind of fictitious play, writing a letter—or really it’s smaller, maybe it’s not really a letter but more like a telegraph—of what that conversation might be like.

It goes: “she: kon one bowl, how can we feed our people without you? I will ask my cousin to send a runner. nia:wen koa5, one spoon.”

Meanwhile, the conversation I was thinking about was more the whole conversation between “one dish one spoon.” We’re missing each other, and we can’t be performing as a collective without each other. We also can’t, as human beings, perform the reciprocity that we’re taught in the absence of the whole teaching.

I was thinking about that curatorially, too. That aspect is very important. Sometimes the information one encounters in exhibition spaces is crucial to the viewing experience. Perhaps in the future it would be helpful for curators to work in partnership with language revitalization programs. Why is everything always in English all the time? Why is it called “ladle,” or whatever, you know? Exhibitions on Indigenous art present an opportunity where we could all be learning. I would like to learn my words. That kind of linguistic contextualization6 produces a really different situation. Then, when I come into a museum or my family comes into a museum, our needs are also being met. That’s just one tiny impression of this much larger discussion of reciprocity, where we’re “learning from” but also giving back, because that is the teaching.

Erin Freedman

It’s interesting, this talk about language revitalization. I was really aware during our time together how much my professional lexicon as a museum worker entered into my experience with you. I kept referring to these objects as “objects” or “artifacts,” whereas you had a much more relational approach, describing them as “belongings,” even if they weren’t particular to Haudenosaunee culture. How important do you feel it is to refer to these objects as “belongings” in order to reactivate them, to think about them as things that are really lively as opposed to things that have been deactivated and decontextualized?

Sebastian De Line

I think the difficult thing is that, growing up here … I grew up on the West Coast, as a guest also, in Vancouver which is not my family’s territory … I am also trained in a European art school and in a European system. Philosophically, we absorb our education on a social level, too, formally and informally here on Turtle Island. The thing is that even philosophically, the whole concept of the separation between subject and object is really fundamentally different. If the conversation were to start from relationality and everything out of relationality, this is a really different philosophical discussion, and then this is a major problem when it comes to translation.

This is a kind of polarization or rupture in Western philosophy, trying to bridge this challenge in posthuman theory and new materialism … the work that European scholars are doing to try to deal with this fracture. I think it’s really important when exhibiting cultural belongings to also look into the philosophies of localized cultures and start to understand things without a translative lens, which is a very presumptuous Western tendency, and often does not accurately get at how things are created.

Erin Freedman

I think that the real challenge right now that’s facing museums is how we reconcile a history of ethnographic collection and decipherment of the object using different types of documents, but not the voices of the makers and the communities that these objects to belong to. The question now is how we integrate these voices to replace that violent record of the object as a means of reconstituting it as a belonging.

I think this is a really good segue to our next image on the right here, which is a wonderful sketch Sebastian made during our visit to the collections at the AMNH (American Museum of Natural History). This was behind the scenes, a rather pristine collection storage area where Virginia Gardner Troy had chosen a selection of pre-Columbian objects for us to examine. And throughout her talk she presented a very detailed structural analysis of some of the things we were looking at.

But what struck me about Sebastian’s image is that if you look at what he sketched on the display table, they lack a level of detail, in contrast to the image that we saw before, which is more articulated. I thought this was really interesting and I thought that you could say something about why you felt like omitting a lot of the detail here.

Sebastian De Line

Sebastian De Line, "Examination Room" at the American Museum of Natural History, 2018.

First of all, it’s not my culture, and again, this is a decision I made earlier … to only speak about and draw things from my culture. I didn’t think it was appropriate for me coming into that room … I mean they’re very beautiful belongings, but the thing is that the stories we’re learning about … there was a lot of pain in how this collection came into the museum. That unrest for me felt quite palpable in the space. Also, the way they were laid out, in terms of this kind of sterility, made it very challenging, actually, to be in relation with these belongings in terms of their place of care. So, I felt myself responding with distance and focusing more on the institutional structure that temporarily homes them.

Erin Freedman

Hence, you call the storage room the ‘examination room.’ And it’s not really a location so much as an event of estrangement. We were actually fortunate enough to have another conversation with Candice Hopkins in collections about how some of these objects are, in some ways, dispossessed; that they don’t really have a home but instead exist in this kind of interstitial space where they’re neither ‘turned off’ nor active. This led to a discussion about the repatriation process, which some museums have initiated with objects like human remains and sacred or ceremonial objects identified by communities.

Sebastian De Line

I think that’s something that you also discussed with me, sharing the story of how some museums are shifting their relationship. Maybe this is something we can talk about: a relationship of stewardship, even the first time a notion of stewardship is introduced; insisting that we must have a certain kind of relationship rather than first having an open, real, human relationship with the community and learning appropriate responsibility and appropriate roles from that.

This in general is something that even as an individual, in fact … the reason I’m conscious of it is my place in life as an artist, as a scholar, as a person who is constantly learning. And I am not a knowledge keeper. I’m that way too, you know? I mediate, and adopt this politics of refusal, which is something Audra Simpson discusses in a very foundational text. There are a lot of Indigenous scholars and artists currently thinking through the idea of refusal, to continually be mindful of what kind of knowledge comes into academic institutions and artistic institutionalization, because outside of that you lack control of the ethics of what goes on and what sort of knowledge is produced.

I think we really need to think about this desire in Western culture, how we must know everything and we have this kind of entitlement, that we’re somehow entitled to learn everything. It’s not actually necessary and it’s not even appropriate all the time. I’m veering a little bit from what you’re saying, but …

Erin Freedman

No, no, that’s exactly it. This goes back to this kind of tension you’re talking about, this desire to know everything and gather as much knowledge as one can about an object. This new injunction says instead: “there are certain things we can’t know” and “there are certain things that aren’t necessarily our prerogative to know.” How do we mediate those thoughts within the museum and make that tangible to museum viewers who are coming to see something on display?

Sebastian and I were also talking about more contemporary practices, more enlightened institutions where objects that used to be on display—objects which were really only the prerogative of certain community members to use and engage with—have simply been removed rather than recreating the display around something new. They actually left that place void and replaced it with a kind of interim panel that explains why it’s no longer on display, where it used to be, and sometimes the process of repatriation that has taken place since its removal.

Sebastian De Line

I think we can also keep thinking about these words, too. “Repatriation” can be thought of in terms of “rehoming.” There are other ways to frame that process and move away from the term “repatriation.” The implied difference between these two terms is also something to consider.

Erin Freedman

You were saying something as well about how the prefix “re”—in terms of a process of reconciliation—can also be problematic; that you’d rather replace it with a more active term like “conciliation.” Could you say a little more about that?

Sebastian De Line

Well, that’s not my term. That’s something that my supervisor Dylan Robinson, who works collectively with various scholars and artists on the term “conciliation,” has employed. It reoccurs in his work, as well as that of Keavy Martin and David Garneau. There are many Indigenous scholars who are thinking about this and in Canada there’s the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is probably familiar to some of you.

To summarize: the whole thing about the word ‘reconciliation’ is that its framing is based on a premise that a relationship began amicably, as friends. The word ‘conciliation’ is more dealing with a conflict, from the beginning. This is their intervention with that word. You have to take a step back and slow this process down. Of course we’re looking for a way to heal, but our relationship is continually settler-colonial, and in different iterations, in different places, it’s still part of the same histories, you know? But then, I think there is this kind of emphasis from the settler perspective to not really deal with just sitting with the pain and actually deal with conflict. So that’s where that comes from.

Erin Freedman

So, the second day we switched gears. The first day we spent looking at Indigenous objects. The second day, as I mentioned, we looked at European-American modernist works. We spent the morning just a couple of blocks away from here at the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation, a foundation where they have tried to preserve the aura of her studio formerly located just across the street. Before sitting down, Sebastian extracted himself from the rest of the group and sat with one of her hangings and this sort of pedestal that she had brought into her studio with a bunch of gathered bundles hanging from it. So tell us a little bit about this image here. You wrote: “We also have tobacco bundles. Is this what you are offering?”

Sebastian De Line

There’s a practical side I should probably explain. When we came to visit the collections, my job in that moment was to respond to the things that we were viewing and experiencing. There was a bit of a time crunch, so I chose to sit a little bit outside of the rope where everyone was circling around to listen. I could hear the conversation, but I kept my seat at a good vantage for drawing. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to participate, it was simply a practical choice (laughs).

The image on the right was from a sculptural piece by Tawney and there were these … they reminded me of tobacco ties, and when you turned around the other side of it you found a piece of wood resembling a sage bundle, and it’s burnt on top. In writing that on the sketch my intention was actually to engage in a conversation with Lenore Tawney—not being able to ask her directly—but nonetheless to ask what is her meaning with this object: “Is this what you meant or is this what you’re offering?”

I think that gets back to what we were talking about earlier, about “where are you from” and the reciprocity of that. She’s very influenced and inspired by these (Indigenous) cultures, so then what is the offering that’s being given in return? What does she mean, and what does it say, and what does it give? That was the question I had in mind. Of course she can’t answer it. So, it’s about how I am I left to sit with her work and respond to it. It was my choice to do that.

Erin Freedman

I think what Lenore really admired in Indigenous and pre-Columbian culture was how they incorporated natural materials—activating and spiritualizing the rather mundane things, many of which populated her studio. Her studio is really full of things, and yet it also had this austere, minimalist quality. I think these two things were always in conflict within her—how to access the spiritual through the material. These two valences tend to be kept separate in Western contexts.

Do you think there’s a level of reciprocity there that she wasn’t able to grapple with at the time she was working?

Sebastian De Line

I’m not sure if there’s a level of reciprocity. I’m suggesting that that’s something artists should keep in mind, to really be informed regarding what your own position is—in terms of your own cultural position, subject position, your own racialized position, class privileged position. Thinking through … when you have a relationship materially and spiritually and personally, together, how we can think about what exactly we are trying to say and do from that place. What are we offering, with a sense of mindfulness of its affect. Not just “affect” in the kind of abstract, theoretical way, but how it feels to someone else, and try to think through these myriad interpretations. Of course, it’s impossible. Then we get into the discussion of what someone does (which is always an interpretation of a reading of the art work by another person) and this is something that’s way too liminal to interpret art in kind of a specific way, but there is a general thing at play. Artworks can possess a sense of something, and one knows what it evokes inside of you. From there perhaps you can feel the intention that’s put into a work.

Erin Freedman

To return to our visits. After the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we got to visit the collection and see some of the objects that Anni Albers had made for industry. So, these weren’t really examples of her incorporating pre-Columbian technical weaves. Most of what we saw were plain woven objects. This was another kind of dislocation. I think we had a lot of expectations about what we might see of hers, but we ended up seeing something quite different.

The textile we’re looking at here in this image are a mixture of a chenille fiber with Lurex and cellophane, I believe. Why did you decide to leave the other two textiles blank?

Sebastian De Line, "We also have tobacco bundles, is this what you are offering" at the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation, 2018. 

Sebstian De Line, Sketch of Anni Albers textile at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018.

Sebastian De Line

You know, drawing is one of the fastest mediums in many ways, and I’m not a perfectionist. Actually, my mother was an artist, and when I was growing up the medium that she was most close to was drawing. My mother was a photographic realist. She really liked the work of Andrew Wyeth and that type of hyper-realism, and she would draw every tiny little blade of grass. She was also a printmaker in the late 1960s and studied print making. When I was growing up, we lived in a small apartment, and she had this screen printing machine that was a big as our kitchen table. When I was a kid, she’d be making screen prints for her shows that had many different colors. She would draw out, as a draftsperson, every single layer by hand, and reenter the colors layer after layer, and she would only make maybe 50 prints at most, all in this tiny apartment. When I went to art school, I thought: “I can’t draw like that, there’s no way I can draw like that.” I learned to draw with my non-dominant hand—I also draw with my left hand because I’m left-eye dominant. I draw very refined with my right hand, but my perspective is off, and there’s too much control.

Erin Freedman

So, you draw with your left hand?

Sebastian De Line

Yes, and it comes back to time, too. We only have an hour and a half to listen to a talk about all of the works, and weaving is really something with a really different quality with regards to time. It’s so much slower and has a processual relationship with material. To make a quick drawing like that, I wanted to leave a lot of detail unfinished in the sketch, because the relationship to time is really different. The time it would take to do that properly … you could honestly work on a drawing trying to copy the detail of all of this weaving and it could take weeks.

Erin Freedman

This kind of reads to me like another refusal that you would leave all that detail out, in drawing; to embody a type of loyalty to the weaving process.

Sebastian De Line

I didn’t think about it that way, but that’s nice. (laughs) Sure, yeah.

We would like to thank Katherine Maller from Goethe-Institut New York for the transcription of the conversation!

  • 1 She:kon means “hello“ in the Kanien'kehá language.
  • 2 Kanien’kehá:ka Nation which is also known as the “People of the Flint” or Mohawk Nation. My father was from the Bear clan. He passed away in 1992 while doing Indigenous sovereignty activism with the Qwa-Ba-Diwa Nation, and the Laich-Twil-Tach Nation on what is also called Vancouver Island.
  • 3 Canton is located in what is now called Guangdong, China. My mother’s family first came to the Americas as indentured laborers, beginning with my great-grandfather who was a Head Tax survivor that worked on the railway (my family uses the word coolie), and my great-uncle, who was an indentured laborer in Guyana. I was born far away from both of my parent’s ancestral territories (on the West Coast of what is called Canada) in the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh nations.
  • 4 Haudenosaunee (meaning People of the Longhouse) is a confederacy of six nations comprised of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora.
  • 5 Nia:wen koa means “thank you very much” in the Kanien'kehá language.
  • 6 This linguistic contextualization is grounded in place and Indigenous relational ways of knowing.
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