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The Value of What Goes On Top/The Value of What Goes Within

The Value of What Goes On Top/The Value of What Goes Within questions the elevation of inanimate objects to a higher status of art, based on where, how, and who places them. However, the view shifts to the absence of an art object, placing the value of art object onto the common museum plinth.


The Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of [what is now known as] British Columbia place conceptual wealth on objects made of copper and maple, elevating these to a higher status through the actions of high-ranking members of their society. Copper has inherent and conceptual wealth, and is often displayed as a shield-like shape held by a Chief. Simply referred to, in english, as a “Copper”, it gained its conceptual wealth through trade, war or union. A Copper could represent the wealth of centuries worth of sacred potlatch ceremonies; multiple canoes, sacred objects of cedar, maple and alder, cedar clothing, baskets of mountain goat wool, stacks upon stacks of trade blankets and other utilitarian objects would all be conceptually represented through that one object. Often having names, Coppers could be used to boast or to shame and the commerce value engrained into them could either be carried forward or stripped completely.


Throughout the Pacific Northwest Coast, cedar is understood as the “common” material, used in almost every aspect of Kwakwaka’wakw society, from longhouses to canoes, sacred, and utilitarian objects. Maple, while often overlooked, is a physically stronger material that could be crafted into highly detailed, ornate objects held by higher-ranking members of Kwakwaka’wakw society. Both maple and copper are materials conceptualized with inherent wealth, yet here they both function and challenge the notion of the Duchampian readymade. Challenging the norm of the Western readymade and challenging the elevation of cultural and utilitarian Kwakwaka’wakw objects is an act of decolonialism against the western gaze upon the “other”.


The Value of What Goes On Top/The Value of What Goes Within was inspired by conversations with community members who have a deep, unbridled understanding of Kwakwaka’wakw art and society prior to European contact. Through speculation, this installation conceptualizes a pre-contact understanding as a pre-colonial gaze. This concept proposes that a pre-colonial observer would question the elevation of ceremonial masks, regalia, and utilitarian objects placed upon a plinth or within other Western modes of ethnographic display. My question is, would this observer assume that the plinth holds the conceptual wealth over the object itself? To answer this question seems to be an exercise in futility. Could we really contextualize the pre-colonial gaze, given we are living within a colonial construct? The question in and of itself, whether it can be answered or not, is an act of decolonization. To invoke decolonial theory, we free ourselves from the colonial subjugation of our art, art history, and conceptual theory.