Jennifer Kramer

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?

Jennifer Kramer

This series is aimed at getting to know exceptional UBC staff and faculty who are doing anything but the typical day to day. Discover the stories of these UBC Vancouver and Okanagan individuals, who contribute to making UBC an inspiring place to be.

As an associate professor of anthropology, author of several books on Northwest Coast culture and art and Pacific Northwest curator for the Museum of Anthropology (MOA), Jennifer Kramer bridges many worlds.

Her focus for the last 14 years: ethnographic writing, teaching and gallery exhibitions that, for her,“try to feel true to self-representation” of sometimes unnamed native artists and yet are “aware and reflective of the histories, structural inequalities and contemporary politics” that underlie their works.

Her newest curated exhibition Layers of Influence: Unfolding Cloth Across Cultures is made up of 134 textiles, chosen with the emphasis on “big and impactful in order to fill the gallery”. At the MOA, the pieces aren’t treated as inanimate, voiceless ‘artifacts’ but rather as living ‘cultural belongings’ that with the support of Indigenous communities themselves, will speak to the visitor.

Drawn from the 6,000 textiles in MOA storage — glistening silk, durable mountain goat wool, bark cloth, feathers, gold thread embroidered on what seems like finely woven spider webs — the gathering presents cultures from Aotearoa-New Zealand, Africa, Asia, Japan, British Columbia and other distant homes. Some pieces whisper, others shout; all are memorable and humanly inclusive, which is what Kramer intended.

UBC Communications and Marketing met up with Jennifer at MOA, walked the exhibit and talked about what she does, and why.

Q
What’s the theme behind ‘Layers of Influence’?

A: It was about trying to show that in every culture, we wrap ourselves in cloth, from birth to death, coming of age rites, weddings; we always wear ritually important clothing, whether heirloom textiles, handmade cloth or fabric valued for various other reasons.

Although the clothing displays great diversity — you see a plethora of techniques, of dye colours, ornamentation, geo-cultural origin — the meaning behind these textiles are so human. We amplify our identities through the wearing of clothing. This exhibition is not about representing exotic others from some distant past or far-off lands, rather it is meant to demonstrate to museum visitors that we wear clothing for similar purposes. Because these cloths come from living cultures, we need to understand and respect their meanings and protocols of use and production.

Q
What brought you to the MOA?

A: MOA’s reputation of being a cutting-edge museum with innovative, collaborative representational practices and active relations to First Nations Northwest Coast cultures brought me here.

I knew of MOA when I was a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City and went to Bella Coola, British Columbia, to do my doctoral research with the Nuxalk Nation. I didn’t want to be another anthropologist that came, recorded knowledge and never stayed, never came back. So Vancouver was the closest I could be to a major university and still maintain connections to the community and my adopted family and friends in Bella Coola.

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I didn’t want to be another anthropologist that came, recorded knowledge and never stayed, never came back.

Q
What’s your typical day?

A: It’s really interesting. My time is divided, 60-percent curator, 40-percent professor. Finding a mathematical divide means teaching one three-credit course one year and the following year, two three-credit courses. So if it’s a year where I’m teaching six credits, I’m often teaching our two-term museum practice and curatorship course, ANTH 431. It’s very different from your average lecture-based course as it is embedded within the museum and directly hands-on.

Almost every staff member, from the director, conservators, collections and the education and public programming department participate in teaching this class. We take no more than 20 students and they learn about museum ethics and theory combined with real, engaged museum practices, from visitor studies to object accession and cataloguing to exhibition curation and the creation of educational programs.

Q
What is ‘self-representation’ and why is it important?

A: I consider myself a ‘critical museologist’ — one who pays attention to the institutional power that we have in the ability to represent others.

At MOA, we strive to practice collaborative museology, working with communities of origin, whether they are individual artists, cultural educators, historians and practitioners, or specific First Nations such as the Nuxalk with whom I work to represent their culture in the museum’s galleries.

Ostensibly, the job of a curator is to care for, research, exhibit and publish the collection in order to share knowledge widely. Always at the forefront however, we represent cultures that usually aren’t ‘us’. When I talk about being aware, you must be very self-reflective about what you’re doing, especially as a non-native curator who works with native collections.

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Always at the forefront however, we represent cultures that usually aren’t ‘us’. When I talk about being aware, you must be very self-reflective about what you’re doing, especially as a non-native curator who works with native collections.

Jennifer Kramer
Q
You’ve spoken about the commodification of native culture: What is it? The benefits and risks?

A: First Nations Northwest Coast art has become fine art sold in art galleries in Gastown and Granville [Street] and auctioned off at very high prices. On one hand, it’s wonderful because this artwork deserves to be recognized aesthetically, it deserves to be valued, especially because between 1884 and 1951 [First Nations] art production was actually against the law in Canada. It was illegal to make regalia for potlatches, to carve masks, to raise totem poles.

At MOA, we’re aware that we’re part of the process of adding value to First Nations’ art. That’s good; we’re bolstering its reputation and raising public awareness by displaying contemporary and historical First Nations art. However, we also must be aware that monetizing the artwork and calling it ‘art’ does not reflect its deeper Indigenous usages in ceremonies and potlatches.

First Nations artists often balance making a living by selling their artwork, with making regalia for use back home. Frequently, these artists work for free because they’re part of a community or family who is potlatching. They may gain local or global recognition but they must be careful about not ‘selling out’ cultural styles, beliefs, crest systems that are owned by specific families on the Northwest Coast. So we’re very conscious of that at the museum.

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The fashion business is hugely irresponsible in how it appropriates Indigenous styles and imageries and can be to the point of stereotypes, leading to complete misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

Q
How do you walk the line between museum and art gallery?

A: We really try to blur the set categories of what should be shown in an art gallery and what should be shown in a museum of anthropology, because the categories are static and binary and don’t reflect real Indigenous peoples’ lives both now or a hundred years ago.

For example, the Western art world really values signatures, signed pieces. From First Nations Northwest Coast perspective however, artists are just ‘the hands of the family’ and it really isn’t that important who makes a mask or a button blanket. It wasn’t even considered artwork; it was functional, ceremonial regalia. Or the weaver who spent a year making a mountain-goat wool blanket isn’t [concerned] about signing her work. It’s about the honour of the person that’s going to wear and use that blanket, not who wove it.

It’s always a balance between getting the message out about the incredible skill and formal aesthetics of a certain type of Indigenous production, and balancing that appreciation without ending up on the spectrum where you get cultural appropriation, where non-native artists, fashion designers or big retail companies reference or even use specific Indigenous art or Northwest Coast form lines without permission and afterwards, ask ‘Why not?’

Q
Okay, why not? Doesn’t it help spread awareness of First Nations’ art forms?

A: It’s very hard for non-native people to understand but really it’s a power inequality issue of who’s doing what. When ‘borrowing’ that native art form, someone else is losing economic income, losing cultural property but also being robbed of the wealth that represents that person, or family or community’s identity. So if you’re a Chilkat weaver and only your family can wear Chilkat and someone else who’s non-Native weaves a Chilkat blanket and puts it on the wrong person, it’s not only diluting of what you own, it’s diluting your identity and history.

The fashion business is hugely irresponsible in how it appropriates Indigenous styles and imageries and can be to the point of stereotypes, leading to complete misrepresentation and misunderstanding. For example, you don’t wear a Plains chief’s war bonnet to a rock concert. That’s complete disrespect. Some people would say ‘I just think it’s a beautiful thing and it’s elegant and it’s powerful and I’m just appreciating Indigenous culture.’

No, you’re not. You’re completely misrepresenting it because you don’t even respect where something comes from.

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I consider the curation of exhibitions as artwork, actually. It’s one perspective of many perspectives.

Q
What do you get from working at MOA?

A: Personally, for me to work, jointly as a curator and associate professor, it’s exciting. The work I do is research and I can engage my undergraduate and graduate students in the importance of this work. I consider the curation of exhibitions as artwork, actually. It’s one perspective of many perspectives. It’s not that exhibition messages are Truth, capital ‘T’ writ large. It’s a responsibility to do these exhibitions and it’s also such an honour to be allowed to work with cultural heritage and the resources of the Museum of Anthropology.

I’m very, very pleased that [First Nations] communities in British Columbia are seeing us as a resource, as an ally as opposed to a negative. That’s what we have been working for.

Four months hence the Layers textiles will return to storage, ready for study and future outings. The gallery space will welcome the next exhibit, collected, organized and presented by MOA curators such as Jennifer Kramer and their equally busy, deliberately low-key colleagues. It’s what they do. They do it well.


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Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partner: Jennifer Kramer, Associate Professor, Anthropology, and Pacific Northwest curator for the Museum of Anthropology.

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, Online Producer; Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Paul Joseph, UBC Photographer; Michael Kam, Web Developer; Lina Kang, Web Coordinator; Adrian Liem, Manager, Digital Communications; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Mormei Zanke, Writer.

Published: January 2017