«Je suis l’autre»: Overcoming the Otherness of Indigenous Artistic Expressions

By Vera Maria Gjermundsen.

In one of the rooms of the Baths of Diocletian in Rome—where the exhibition on indigenous art and early 20th century sculpture «Je suis l’autre» is now on display—five wooden faces are looking at me through the glass of their display case. It’s as if I can feel their stares luring gravely in the shadows of their hollowed out eyes, as five pair of eyes simultaneously follow my every movement, keeping a vigilant look at the top of my head as I bow down to read the plaque:

Sciaitan: Representations of spirits that protect the forest, originally propped up against a large cedar tree at the center of a “sacred wood,” to which were devoted ceremonies, prayers, invocations and offerings, and libations, aimed at obtaining benevolence. Asia, Western Siberia. Ostyak (Khanty) peoples. Before 1880.
"Je suis l’autre. Giacometti, Picasso and the Others. Primitivism in 20th-Century Sculpture" on display at Baths of Diocletian 2018 - 2019. Photos by Vera Maria Gjermundsen

I look up again. The faces return my stare. Suddenly, something hits me with the bitter strength of a misplaced detail. I realize, in between the shadowy looks, that someone has inserted some quotation marks in the text: the plaque, in fact, really does read “sacred wood.” Not sacred woods. “Sacred wood”—in quotes.

It is in cases like this that something happens to you and, from curious art-spectator, you instead become a witness to the intimidating power of our language. Even the smallest elements of our phrasing suddenly become an expressive result of how implanted we are in our own occidental worldview and how we struggle, and often fail, to remove ourselves from it when considering indigenous cultures. In this case, it’s the punctuation marks that give us away. “Sacred wood.” The plaque, through seemingly insignificant quotation marks, in fact immediately points to a wood whose sacredness might perhaps be claimed by some, but that we ultimately, deep in our European hearts, know not to exist, and therefore relegate to a quote. There are, in fact, no sacred woods in our world, no woods hosting spiritual objects with ceremonies and chants devoted to them. That is not a world that we know of nor a world we truly believe in, and as such, it can only find its place in disturbing punctuation marks, where it’s actual existence is ironically doubted.

When biased enough, symbols like these might describe something as not an autonomous and dignified world, or ontology, what could be an ontology of rituals and embedded sacred meanings in this case, but instead simply refer to it as a different interpretation of the ever-present, occidental, and, as such, “correct” worldview (I do believe quotation marks come in handy in this context) of the person writing the text. The concept of a “sacred wood” therefore simply refers to a more or less questionable alternative version of the same constant, western reality that we firmly recognize as lacking such attributes [1].

«The Other»: a biased language and a biased exhibition room

Once one becomes aware of it, while walking around in the exhibition, one can suddenly find language to strike and strike again in the shape of a quite myopic and biased barrier, acting as a pair of western-made glasses through which all of the indigenous artworks seem merely to exist as ethnic otherness.

It’s clear from the title of the exhibition, in fact, that alongside the quite controversial and media-debated word «ethnic»,[2] the main word employed when describing these indigenous artworks is «The other». Notwithstanding the intent of the exhibition to explicitly compare indigenous artworks to occidental interpretations of them, or perhaps because of the very fact that this need for comparison is the core for such an exhibit of indigenous artworks to even take place, it’s relevant to note how the act of continuously referring to something as “The Other” does nothing but insistently deny autonomy and dignity to the matter at hand, [3] being this an artistic autonomy or not, and instead keeps identifying it as something else, as an alternative to “The One.” “The One,” in this context, are Picasso, Miró and Max Ernst, amongst others, standing tall as the representatives for our occidental, and, as such, one might again say, everlasting and “correct” reigning artistic expression. It is really striking to note how, by simply wearing the clothes of “The Other,” centuries of indigenous artistic expression are made into something that still, to this day, needs an occidental “One” in order to be defined as such.

Moreover, as the indigenous artworks are somewhat refused the right to stand alone as a world of autonomous artistic creation simply through the curatorial use of language, they are also physically presented in what might be described as one of the least neutral gallery spaces one might lay eyes upon. Being the exhibition, as mentioned, held in the Baths of Diocletian, the visual result of the ensemble is one of all-too-frequent juxtaposition between classical statues of the Roman period in the background and non-occidental artworks in the front. Again, instead of letting the exhibition open up towards indigenous art with genuine and unbiased curiosity, such a location further contributes to subtracting artistic autonomy to the displayed objects. It does, at the same time, seem to linger, consciously or unconsciously, around the same premises that have brought occidental civilizations to define these artforms as “primitive” in the first place: namely by placing all these radically diverse artforms on the same, consistent value scale, a scale which is undeniably created by the western world and brought forward on the western world’s own premises, a scale that furthermore has placed the Classical beauty of Greek and Roman sculptures at its very top for a much too consistent amount of time for this aspect to be ignored, when presenting something that radically differs from it such as in this case. When physically obliged to look at the artworks side by side, the visual comparison in fact further undermines the possibility to regard the indigenous artworks as part of their own, non-occidental and autonomous scale of artistic value.

Spiritually dense non-sculptures

In order to consider one last problematic yet relevant aspect of the exhibition, one would now need to return to the aforementioned plaque for the Sciaitan-objects, and take in what is in fact written there, disregarding for a moment the disturbance brought up by the quotation marks. The plaque, in fact, says nothing regarding the object’s shape and form, regarding the artist’s artistic intention, the theoretical movement from which it arose, or the iconography of the sculptures. Never once, are the word sculpture or artist even mentioned. Instead, there is a world made up of the sound of prayers, the smell of offerings, of crowds, colors and voices.

How can such a world be kept alive in the display case? The plaque doesn’t give any answers, and the faces stare emptily, as they suddenly seem to be looking right past you, having retained their physical form but seemingly lost their spiritual insides, together with their social, religious and ritual context.

Looking around, one realizes that the exhibition is almost entirely made up of objects with similar previous uses. They might look like the 20th century sculptures, they might be physically placed in glass cases alongside their occidental “counterparts,” but they are in fact not counterparts at all. They are instead all part of a radically different world, a world that has been denied entrance to the museum halls. Thus, what we’re confronted with is the mere outward shape of the objects, part of an aestheticized outlook and alien artistic expression, as it’s stripped of all its vibrant complexity and made to adapt our western conception and desired outlook imposed on museum objects: objects that are made to be looked at through glass panels and never touched, in order to be conserved, statically, through all ages to come.

One might say, that a solution has already been brought forward to this alienating process that a lot of indigenous artworks undergo: as a way to keep these objects in their own complex contexts and wishing to preserve as many of the original aspects of them as possible, museums have in some cases adopted collaborative measures and reached out to indigenous groups. Allowing ritual offerings to be made and ceremonies to be held in front of such objects, such as in front of the Hawaiian temple image form the 1800s exhibited at the Peabody Essex Museum [4], might be seen as one way to try and keep the object’s spiritual, religious and ritual values alive, as well as its constantly evolving aesthetic one.

Still, the concept of sacredness and spiritual value is a complex, variable and multi-faced issue that can hardly be discussed in its entirety in this context, nor can it be in any way provided an ever-lasting solution, and would instead require a sensitive and attentive case-by-case approach [5].

However, a more pronounced awareness around these issues than the one shown in «Je suis l’autre», as well as a clear and ever-lasting effort to raise critical questions on the curatorial part and to engage the public in relevant debates, together with a constant strive towards unbiased neutrality [6] in the treatment and display of the objects and respectful collaborations with the indigenous communities, could be some ways to prevent such intrinsically problematic aspects to degenerate.

A missed opportunity

Conclusively, as they’re pressed down by the imponent roman baths and the white marbles of polished classical sculptures, and as they’re relegated to the role of a generic ethnic “Other,” with its original spiritual, cultural, ritual and religious values enclosed in glass cases and quotation marks, the indigenous objects of «Je suis l’autre» are risking to be stripped of their autonomous dignity and instead become dependent on our western conception of how the world and the artwork should look like, in order to be displayed and conceived. Thus, missing the chance to acknowledge and discuss the limits of the display, location and language employed, the exhibition does almost nothing more than presenting exotified non-sculptures. When considering this specific case, it really does seem like indigenous artworks and their underlying contexts and worldviews need to wait a little longer to finally manage to be identified as “Ones,” as we continue working around the idea of finally letting go of our self-based and omnipresent western perspective.


[1] It’s exactly such a way of thinking the world that the so called «Ontological Turn» aims to reverse within the field of anthropology. Here, anthropologists such as Eduardo Viveiros De Castro instead propose a new polyontological way of thinking about and discussing indigenous ontologies: namely approaching them as actual creators of new and different worlds, that may radically differ from our present occidental worldview, and not simply seeing them as more or less reliable alternative views on the same constant western reality. (Halland, «Hvor er nødutgangen?», 211.)

[2] The word, originally indicating one’s cultural, religious or racial background, should as such imply that every single person is, in fact, ethnic. However, the word’s employment from the 1960s and onwards, sees it instead being used to relegate all non-Caucasian individuals in a segregating and overly uniformed “ethnic” group of people “who share only one characteristic: that they don’t have white skin”. (Clements, «The evolution of the word ‘ethnic´»; Okolosie et al, «Is it time to ditch the term ´Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME)?».)

[3] In this context, hanging above the wall texts of the exhibition, it’s hard not to see the lingering shadow of Simone De Beauvoir’s lucid recapitulation of the drastic consequences concerning race and gender that such a division between “The One” and “The Other” has created over the course of mankind. (Beauvoir, Det annet kjønn, 175.)

[4] Eakin, «Museums establish guidelines for treatment of sacred objects».

[5] Sadongei (Kiowa/Tohono O'odham), «What about sacred objects?», 15.

[6] Ibid.


Beauvoir, Simone de. «Det annet kjønn». I Exphil 1: Filosofi og vitenskapshistorie, redigert

av IFIKK, 172-185. Oslo: Universitetet i Oslo/Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 2015.

Clements, Warren. «The evolution of the word ethnic». The Globe and Mail. Retrieved

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