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Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 18,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection.

Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment.

  • Wednesday, August 5, 2015

    Collecting the Past: Kenojuak Ashevak

    Guest blogger Jiete (Jady) Li is a Smith College student, class of 2015. The original version of this work was written for Collecting the Past: Art and Artifacts of the Ancient Americas. This course was offered Spring 2015 by Dana Leibsohn, Priscilla Paine Van der Poel Professor of Art.

    Kenojuak Ashevak. Inuit, 1927 – 2013. Untitled, 1961. Pencil on white wove paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James A. Houston (Alice Watson, class of 1959). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1979:35-14

    This pencil drawing on wove paper by Kenojuak Ashevak, one of the most well-known modern Inuit artists, represents two human figures encircled by animals and sea deities against a blank background. The absence of a setting seems to indicate an indefinable space, creating an otherworldly and fantastic atmosphere. The two central figures, probably a parent and a child, wear the traditional Inuit parkas. They stand with their backs to the viewer on the decorated tails of two sea deities.

    Detail of drawing

    Different from the mermaid-like creature on the left, the one on the right with two more long plumes, a squarish fin, and a five-fingered hand may represent the Inuit sea goddess Sedna (detail above) whose fingers have been cut by her father.  The hand of Sedna supports a bird facing a wolf (or a sled dog or a fox) whose four legs step on the human figures and the other sea deity. The swirling tail of the wolf echoes with a small bird flying above the big one on the left. The overall composition forms a circle encompassing the central parent and child. The drawing is probably about Sedna’s transformation into the sea goddess or about Kenojuak’s imaginative perception of the world around her.

    Detail of drawing

    The Cape Dorset printmaking project was developed in the 1950s under Western colonialism: Western ideologies, aesthetics, and interests shaped Inuit people’s identity and arts; simultaneously the aboriginal people learned to see themselves in the ways which mattered to the outsiders. At first, this project was considered a symbiotic “win-win game” for both the Western and native participants, as all stakeholders contributed to the formation of a primitive and exotic representation of Inuit culture to the outside world. The Canadian government sponsored such a program in order to claim sovereignty in the Arctic and find a historical origin of the national identity, while the northern native artists were driven by the economic benefits, catering to the southern patrons.

    Detail of drawing

    The Cape Dorset project tried to save the “pure” and “authentic” Inuit culture in the rapidly changing modern world under the tight Western control and intervention. The natives consequently faced a struggle between modernization—participation in a market-driven capitalist economy, and primitivization—creation of historical imageries unrelated to their contemporary life. Perhaps because of a lack of autonomy in the production and dissemination of Inuit cultural knowledge in the 20th century, the natives had internalized the romanticized Inuit image created by the Westerners: they saw themselves as how the outsiders saw them.

    For instance, the locals believed that Inuit arts produced in workshops supervised by Westerners preserved the pristine and pre-Western contact aboriginal culture and were thus used for educating their children.  Passing down knowledge filtered through a Western lens to future generations has further intensified the primitivization of Inuit culture within the local community.

    Detail of drawing

    Due to the post-colonial repositioning of archaeology and ethnography as well as the political sovereignty of Nunavut, the ethical imbalance and cultural racism between the Western authorities (such as Western founders, managers, and scholars of the project) and native art makers in Cape Dorset were recently acknowledged and challenged. In the last two decades, the Inuit people have become more self-critical, reflective, and empowered to define their identity by themselves, which can be demonstrated in the exhibition An Inuit Perspective: Baker Lake Sculpture.  More and more contemporary Inuit artists have started to portray their present everyday life, including modern transportation, costumes, and technologies.

    This infusion of Western culture into the Inuit way of life does not make the aboriginal people “inauthentic” or “impure,” but suggests that the Inuit community is a fluid and changing entity participating in the global world rather than a static and culturally determined product. Though outsiders can learn and interpret other cultures, the natives should have the autonomy and freedom to produce, display, define, and disseminate their own culture.


  • Wednesday, July 29, 2015

    Collecting the Past: Kannibalen Bioethicists

    Guest blogger Amenda Cho is a Hampshire College student, class of 2015. Her academic concentrations at Hampshire were Anthropology, Journalism, and Photography.  The original version of this work was written for Collecting the Past: Art and Artifacts of the Ancient Americas. This course was offered Spring 2015 by Dana Leibsohn, Priscilla Paine Van der Poel Professor of Art.

    Enrique Chagoya. American born Mexico, 1953. Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists , 2001. Lithograph and woodcut with black, ochre, blue, yellow, and green ink, chine colle and collage on paper Purchased with the Arch W. Shaw Foundation, through the courtesy of Nancy Simonds Shaw, class of 1972, administrator. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2002:9

    One of the things that is interesting about the Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists codex is how many different critiques can be read within the piece of work.  There are many different ways of reading the cannibalism theme, the appropriation of different cultures, and how the art industry has played a role in that within the piece, but one thing that stood out to me was the “blood stains” present throughout. 

    Page from Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists

    They are obviously not real blood stains, but they are a reference to how the Mayans have become associated with violent religious rituals that include cannibalism, and it also refers to how the Western world has appropriated the images and text of the Mayan culture and consumed them.  Though this is a strong theme throughout the piece, what caught my attention with the blood stains is how it is a reminder that this ritual of cannibalism continues through the work and through people who are viewing it.  As a part of the audience, we “consume” this piece as a work of art which critiques the consumption and appropriation of other cultures in art, and yet by viewing it, we are participating in exactly what the piece is critiquing.  This causes one to think about the audience’s own influence in how art is understood, and the different filters and packaging the piece goes through before actually reaching the audience. 

    So who is this codex geared towards?  Historically, codices made in the Mayan culture were used to keep records of religious and spiritual rituals, as well as to keep a written record of the people’s history.  However a majority of the codices were burned by the Christian church, as they were seen as pagan and unholy texts.  Those that have survived until now somehow made it to Europe before the burning of the codices, and are still located in different parts of Europe today. 

    Page from Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists

    Detail of burning filing cabinet

    When considering this, there are several pages of the codex that make more sense, specifically page ten (above) which has the image of a burning filing cabinet.  This also means that these same codices that were used to teach history to younger generations of Mayan people are now in display for mostly the Western world to decipher, consume and teach the rest of the world about.  This is something that Enrique Chagoya is very critical of and what he tries to call attention to with this codex. 

    Page from Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists

    Page from Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists

    Enrique Chagoya is currently a professor of Art and Art History at Stanford University, but was born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico.  It was here that he became more aware of ancient indigenous beliefs, imagination, and history.  It is also here, through his Nahuan nurse, that he became empathetic towards the Indian side of Mexican culture.  This gives some information as to which side of the narrative Chagoya relates more readily to and to whom he might be directing the codex and its critique toward. 

    Page from Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists

    When talking about the codex, Chagoya uses the terms “reverse anthropology” and “cannibalism” as metaphors of the process of how dominant cultures are able to rewrite and redefine traditions and cultures of other groups of people, and this is something he tries to illuminate through the cannibalism theme throughout this piece.  This seems to suggest that the piece was made for the dominant culture, currently the Western world, to attempt to understand, as these terms are critiques of things the dominant culture participates in. 

    It is also obvious that the codex was made for Western consumption because of the main languages used throughout the codex.  The codex begins with a title that comes from the German language, and continues to use both English and German throughout, even until the end.  This is interesting because of the original purpose of the codex in the Mayan context.  However, it almost builds more on the cannibalism theme, as it is a reflection of a group of people’s history that is now made specifically for the consumption of the Western powers. 

    Page from Abenteuer der Kannibalen Bioethicists

    Another group of people that the codex is geared toward is the art industry and those who participate in it.  This is made most obvious from pages sixteen to eighteen where the popular images of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans are appropriated, and instead of having the traditional “Tomato Soup” written on it, it now uses the body parts of the art industry such as “Artist’s Brains Soup” and “Critic’s Tongue Soup” (above).  This plays off the audience’s role in the consumption of art and the packaging that they take art in because many times, people come to art with an understanding that is founded from specific perspectives, such as through a curator or a critic.  This is parallel to Chagoya’s critique of who is able to write history, because similar to the histories of certain cultures, there is a filter, or a re-packaging, of people’s understanding of art, as there is a re-translation of cultures and traditions. 

    This piece is mainly geared towards these two specific groups of people.  However, as mentioned before, the audience, no matter their background, is still a participant in this.  So despite messages that are being sent through this piece, everyone who views it is participating in the consumption of different cultures and their art.  This almost seems to say that despite Chagoya’s critique of this practice, it is something that is a part of a cycle and that it is something that is inevitable since everyone is participating in it.  


  • Wednesday, July 22, 2015

    Collecting the Past: Marilyn Bridges

    Guest blogger Saraphina Masters is a Smith College student, class of 2017, majoring in Classical Studies and Art History. She was the 2013-2015 STRIDE Scholar in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. The original version of this work was written for Collecting the Past: Art and Artifacts of the Ancient Americas. This course was offered Spring 2015 by Dana Leibsohn, Priscilla Paine Van der Poel Professor of Art.


    Marilyn Bridges. American, born 1948. Machu Picchu, Peru, 1989. Gelatin Silver Print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2009:49-13

    In 1976, during a trip to Peru, Marilyn Bridges flew in a small plane for the first time over the Nazca lines. She had previously taken photographs for travel publications but had now discovered a type of photography that would define the rest of her career. Within a year of that formative flight, Bridges exhibited her first solo show at the Museum of Natural History in New York. From there, Bridges traveled around the world to capture images of ancient archeological sites from a plane. In doing so, she offers a new perspective on famous structures, such as the Greek Acropolis and the remains of pre-colonial South American cultures such as the Nazca and the Inca.

    Detail of Machu Picchu, Peru

    Though she is a licensed pilot, Bridges does not fly while photographing. Instead, she works closely with the pilot to reach the angle and position for her shots. Hers is a technically difficult process for both the pilot and the photographer. The plane must almost stall in order for Bridges to obtain clear shots, even when she uses extremely fast shutter speeds on her camera. To avoid her subjects being so distant they are perceived as abstraction, Bridges flies no higher than 1000 feet above the ground and as low as 200 feet.  A complicated and hazardous process, it provides results that elevate landscapes into the realm of fine art.

    Marilyn Bridges. American, born 1948. Chan Chan, 1989. Gelatin Silver Print. Gift of Nicole Moretti Ungar, class of 1982, and Jon Ungar. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2009:49-14

    Marilyn Bridges’ style can be characterized by signal traits that appear repeatedly in her work. The dramatic shadows cast by her subjects reveal their identity, and in her own words, “shadows give away the secrets of what’s down there”. Bridges uses shadows to convey what is there: the subject, by highlighting what is not: light. Her attention to strong contrasts between light and dark creates pathos within her work. The obvious distance and isolation of her subjects, both from her camera in the plane and modern civilization on the ground, is made clear in her photographs. Bridges presents an inescapable awareness of the impressive age of the ruins that she captures.

    Detail of Chan Chan

    Marilyn Bridges will not be the last photographer to take to the sky for arresting visual images and she is certainly not the first. Aerial photography in the Americas began with a detour by renowned American aviator Charles Lindbergh. While flying over the northeastern Yucatán, he spotted mounds and masonry that were a part of a site of ruins with a diameter of eight miles. One of the first discoveries of the kind by plane in the Americas, this experience captivated Lindbergh who, with the help of his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Smith College Class of 1928), would go on to introduce aerial exploration, and eventually photography, to American archeologists. Unlike the relatively flat surfaces of sites in Europe and the Middle East, the dense and impenetrable forest of Central and South America made it difficult to gain a complete view of a site, making aerial vantage points invaluable.   

    With its obvious military roots, aerial photography was not immediately perceived as a medium for fine art. By its nature, the practice can be perceived as utilitarian in that it has been used to inform military intelligence, cartographic developments, and archeological discoveries. The pioneers in the field as it shifted towards art, such as Bradford Washburn and William Garnett, were in fact scientists who took aerial images of the wilderness to support their research. However, the realization that these useful, practical images are also aesthetically stunning in their scope and composition was inevitable. One of the first to make the link between the pragmatic practice and its artistic results, Garnett was featured in the first aerial photography exhibition at the International Museum of Photography.  What follows this breakthrough is a rich medium that unites science, technology, and art.