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Decolonizing Museum Spaces: Decorative Arts as a Vessel for Disruption

by Cheyenne Mapplebeck

John Fleming Award in Decorative Arts Writing The CSDA/CCAD presented Cheyenne Mapplebeck with the first John Fleming Award in Decorative Arts Writing. This annual, $1,000 juried award recognizes an exceptional example of original magazine writing on decorative arts in Canada from an emerging author. For more information on John Fleming and the Award go to:

Detail of ceramic vessels.
Shawna Redskye. Detail of objects from A Remembering: Star Stories and Water Bodies, 2019. Sgraffito ceramic vessels. Collection of the artist.

THERE IS POWER IN VISIBILITY. When we see something, its existence becomes undeniable. But it is no secret that many galleries, museums, and art institutions have deliberately snubbed the voices of BIPOC artists in favor of patriarchal poster boys. The erasure was deliberate, for art was a tool used to maintain cultural supremacy in the hands of a few.

Today, times are changing. Voices are emerging and colouring gallery spaces with long invisible cultures, histories, and perspectives. This article examines the work of three BIPOC artists—Magdolene Dykstra, Behnaz Fatemi, and Shawna Redskye—from three recent exhibitions at the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery in Waterloo, ON. These artists’ messages, choice of media, and methods of display directly question the patriarchal and colonial influence of museum spaces.

Eurocentrism of the Museum Space

The history and authority of Western museums informs the context of these artists’ work. From the late 18th century and onward, museum and gallery spaces began to develop the practices of collecting and display still seen today. This expansion came from ideas of nationalism and the desire to educate the public. As cultural spaces, the artwork and artifacts displayed within these institutions ultimately impact cultural representations and the dissemination of narratives to the public. In consequence, colonialism shaped whose and which objects curators—typically white, male, and affluent—collected, displayed, and valued. Many museums influenced by colonial powers acquired artifacts and artworks from their colonies. These objects were often taken without consent and used to portray Indigenous cultures as primitive or exotic. Artworks, museum objects, and exhibitions further reinforced imperial narratives by privileging Western achievements and downplaying the negative impacts of colonialism.

The power structures of the art world ignored centuries of craft heritage as well as the cultures that produced these objects. The omission of different peoples and perspectives not only marginalizes but also alienates those outside of the Western tradition. This exclusion is not part of the past. As recently as 2019, a survey sample of 18 major art galleries in the United States showed that 85% of artists within their permanent collections are white, and 87% are men (Topaz et al.).

Decorative Disruptions

The presentation of art to the public is changing. In many ways, this shift is coming from BIPOC voices seeking to disrupt the colonial history of gallery spaces. These disruptions result not only from the artists’ respective conceptual foundations but also from the unconventional methods of display used within their exhibitions.

In 2022, the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery presented Disruption: an aptly-titled exhibition that featured the work of Natalia Arbelaez, Magdolene Dykstra, Habiba El-Sayed, and Heidi Mackenzie. All are BIPOC artists whose work actively challenges the white, Eurocentric narrative that overwhelms the art world. This disruption comes from both the contextual basis of their work and their unique methods of display that challenge stereotypical Western ideologies. One of the most striking pieces from Disruption is Magdolene Dykstra’s Rupture, a site-specific wall painting using clay bodies and acrylic. The mural was hand-printed with the thumb marks of seven young, emerging, BIPOC professionals: Madison Grineau, Ashley Guenette, Taylor Morency, Abisola Oni, Manreet Pabia, Manya Shahi, and Heejung Shin. From a distance, these thumbprints blend into waves of red, yellow, and black. The size is astounding: it spans across the entire wall, and it is impossible to ignore. Upon closer inspection, however, there is evidence of each touch and individual identity that played a part in the piece’s creation. Rupture points out how art history promotes individual achievement over that of the cooperative and collective as well as how it minimizes the contributions of so many BIPOC individuals.

A ceramic mural of thumbprints.
Magdolene Dykstra with Madison Grineeau, Ashley Guenette, Taylor Morency, Abisola Oni, Manreet Pabia, Manya Shahi, and Heejung Shin, Rupture, 2021. Site specific finger painting, iron oxides, acrylic medium.

The large size, abstract forms, and manipulation of visual perspectives in this piece harken back to the history of Abstract Expressionism. As told from the perspective of the West, abstraction’s importance is attributed to European and American male artists of the twentieth century. However, abstraction was not a new or revolutionary concept to many non-Western cultures. Rupture is undeniable visual evidence of Dykstra’s, and her collaborators’, presence within the art space. This ceramic mural is assertive, historically-charged, and a poignant use of the artist’s hand as a vessel for disruption.

In 2022 the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery introduced the exhibition Voices, which functioned as an examination of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the Canadian landscape. This exhibition showed the works of 39 artists, all with different backgrounds and identities. Each artist approached the concept of diversity and identity in unique ways, but one in particular which demands attention is Gloom by Behnaz Fatemi. Fatemi’s installation visually examines the dangers of a society absent of diversity, tolerance, and inclusion. Society is an institution defined by defiance or compliance to social roles. In this sense, complying with sanctioned, social roles represents social order. These roles and expectations are reinforced by the visual culture displayed in our museums and galleries. The cultural objects displayed in museums have a direct impact on the perception of history, identity, and worldly ideals. However, some do not fit into society’s prescribed roles: outcasts, radical-thinkers, and Others. Their reluctance to adhere to social order separates them from their communities. But what happens to these pariahs cut off from their peers?

A ceramic floor piece composed of small figures.
Behnaz Fatemi, Gloom, 2021-2022. Ceramic. Collection of the artist

Fatemi has constructed a multitude of small-scale, androgynous bodies that are greyscale in tone and nearly identical in form. Interestingly, these figures largely resemble the carcasses of sheep. Some are knock-kneed and curved; others are exposed from jugular to sternum—almost as if carved by a butcher’s hands. In the eyes of Fatemi, this is a visual representation of what happens when methods of social control prevent diversity. Each object is mutilated and forcefully stripped of its unique identity in order to appease forces of oppression.

Displayed on a shallow plinth near the floor, the crowd of carcasses obstructs the footpaths of visitors and dares to be trampled. The strategic curation of these pieces, which could have been conventionally displayed on a plinth or behind glass, forces viewers to acknowledge their presence. They disrupt the flow of movement and refuse to fade away into the gallery space.

There are numerous facets of social control, many of which are enforced by systemic oppression within a patriarchal society. Institutions—including museums, galleries, and other sources of education—influence these methods of control by dictating what is or isn’t visible. Fatemi challenges this idea of visibility by presenting an unavoidable, visual representation of oppression within society.

Shawna Redskye, an Indigenous ceramic artist, displayed a multitude of vessels in the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery’s 2019 exhibition titled A Remembering: Star Stories and Water Bodies. Strategically curated, this exhibition combined both the knowledge of guest curator Chloe Blair and the intentions of the artist to create a thought-provoking presentation that challenged the gallery space as well as the colonial history of these spaces. A Remembering featured five broken clay vessels, each situated on the gallery floor amidst a weaving pattern made of reeds cultivated from local water bodies in the Waterloo-Wellington region. In this sense, Redskye’s exhibition deliberately infiltrates the gallery space with physical evidence of the external environment. The pieces are displayed within the context and history of the land they are tied to, which is of great importance to understanding the conceptual basis of Star Stories and Water Bodies.

Photo of artist and curator with ceramic vessels.
Shawna Redskye (left) and curator Chloe Blair (right) alongside the installation of A Remembering: Star Stories and Water Bodies, retrieved from the artist’s Instagram (@morningstarrceramics)

Redskye explained, “The exhibition [focuses] on the experiences of displacement, colonization, and navigation that are shared by so many. As we continue to face displacement from our ancestral lands, it is our water bodies . . . and the stars that continue to hold the sacred role of navigation.” Each vessel features sgraffito illustrations of cultural stories that are connected to the stars. The use of sgraffito against the navy blue glazes, speckled with white dots akin to stars, implies the concept of constellations. These narratives reflect land, water, and other aspects of the environment connected to Indigenous spirituality and the Great Spirit.

By showcasing these works alongside physical representations of the natural environment, nesting each egg-like vessel within reeds from the surrounding land, it removes the possibility of comprehending the work without external contexts. The Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery resides on the Haldimand Tract: land promised to the Six Nations that runs six miles on each side of the Grand River. This exhibition is a visual homage to the concept of displacement and the long-standing impacts of colonization. It brings forth physical objects that represent aspects of Indigenous culture, connecting them to the land, Indigenous history, and ultimately asserts narratives that have been ignored within gallery spaces. The vessels lay on the floor amongst the reeds, connected to the earth, and root themselves firmly in defiance of colonial influence.

Many artists continue to challenge colonial influence through their contemporary practices. The content of these artists’ work is powerful in their own right: testaments and visually-strong statements that engage attention and demand visibility. Yet, it is also intensely important to consider the way these objects are displayed in gallery spaces. To truly emerge from the grasp of colonialism, the greater aspects of museums and galleries must be reconsidered and re-imagined, not merely the collections they display. Context matters. Visual signifiers matter. Breaking away from white-dominated cultural spaces matters. How can progress truly ever be made if our methods of display remain the same?

Cheyenne Mapplebeck is a Métis artist, writer, and curator living and working in Kitchener-Waterloo. A recent BFA program graduate from The University of Waterloo, she received the Curator’s Choice Award for her thesis project, Red Herring, which examines the impacts of late-stage capitalism. As gallery coordinator at The Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery, she has written a variety of curatorial essays featured in exhibition catalogues, such as Voices (2022) and The Decorated Surface (2023).


Topaz, Chad M et al. “Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums.” PLoS one 14.3 (2019),


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