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Updated: Oct 29, 2023

My name is Kaitlyn. I’m a white American living in the UK. I grew up watching Peter Pan on repeat, chanting along with the Atlanta Braves, and learning very very little about Native Americans in school. I moved to the UK when I was 7, where Indigenous histories were never mentioned. I went to university at 21, and studying art history I thought I would walk out a traditional art historian - y’know studying all the movements, impressionism, futurism, abstract expressionism, and all that - but my university was, and probably still is, one of the only universities in the UK teaching a variety of world art. Alongside Venetian art and contemporary arts of the US, I learned of Aboriginal Australian art, a range of Pacific arts, African and South American arts past and present. My first love was Pacific arts, because I was told about this:

Head of a Staff God by an Unknown Maker. Produced Late 18th- Early 19th-Century, Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Wood. H794 x W70 x D154 mm. Image by the Sainsbury Centre.

A Rarotongan Staff God. A lot of the original object is missing. Sorry, not missing, intentionally cut off. It would have looked like this:

Large Staff God by an Unknown Maker. Produced Late 18th- Early 19th-Century, Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Wood, barkcloth, feather. L396 x W60 x D60 cm. Image by the British Museum.

But the body of the staff was removed, either due to the weight, lack of interest in anything other than the most decorative part, or because it would have had a penis at the end of it and that simply was not for the eyes of delicate Victorians. This is something that the Christian missionaries who took/confiscated/destroyed/etc it decided to take into their own hands, probably on behalf of the Crown. You see a lot of half-objects in museums because of this. I can go into this in another post, or multiple posts.

Its history intrigued me, because why would you destroy that? The barkcloth wrapped around it would have also had significance due to the sheer amount of time it takes to create barkcloth. Why would you separate that? Anyway. This led to me learning lots about Pacific arts and cultures, specifically Hawaiian and Māori. Presenting about objects on displays in museums widened my knowledge and sparked my interests and for that I’m grateful. It was the start of what I’m doing today.

I got involved with multiple exhibitions and projects at university. I joined Beyond the Spectacle as a volunteer and was taught how to conduct interviews for oral history archives. I met some incredible people. I met Sierra Tasi Baker, who taught me their views on art, shared their experiences of studying in the UK, meeting the Queen, and carrying the weight of their family with them in their activism. They are an amazing dancer, by the way (links to their social media and business endeavours at the end of the post).

I also met Sonny and Lily Assu. Sonny is an incredible person, artist, activist, and all round stand up guy. But just as equally (if not more) is Lily, his now 10-almost-11 year old daughter. These two changed my life. I met them through Beyond the Spectacle when Sonny was artist-in-residence at the Sainsbury Centre in 2019. I was really lucky to be closely involved with the exhibition Sonny curated, and got to see firsthand his artistic process when creating Dance As Though The Ancestors Are Watching:

Sonny Assu. Dance As Though The Ancestors Are Watching. 2019. Produced in England. Acrylic on panel. Image by the Sainsbury Centre.

Sonny taught me lot. We went to the British Museum stores and got to handle objects from his hometown and we conducted an interview in the same space. He told me about the Chilkat robes that were in really bad shape, how they might have been acquired, and identified shapes in the design. He did a presentation alongside a symposium and the exhibition launch where he told us about his great-great-grandfather, Chief Billy Assu, and his given ultimatum to hand over the regalia and other objects of value to the State or resist, be put in prison, and have the objects taken regardless. Chief Assu took this ultimatum to the community, and while their collective opinion was to hand over the objects, he took them down to the beach and burned them to give them back to his ancestors. This story changed how I viewed many things in my life, such as respecting the objects I have brought into my life and the items that I have been gifted by loved ones, and led me to actively work at being an Indigenous ally. I aim to share on this platform my journey on what this is like, how I am working on actively decolonising myself. I have done a lot of work and research on this already thanks to my interest in Indigenous arts and degrees, but this will allow me to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. I’m sure I’ll make some mistakes along the way, and I will be transparent in this, because I think that this is also an important part of the journey. If you are non-Indigenous, I hope this space gives you knowledge, the room to be curious and ask questions, and assist you in your allyship and decolonisation. And specifically for Indigenous folx, I hope this can be another platform to amplify your voices, individually and collectively.



Sierra Tasi Baker:

Sonny Assu:

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