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Challenging Conquest Art on Pepperdine University's Campus

Project Overview

A multi-dimensional advocacy project that brought the issue of university campus “conquest art” to the forefront of community dialogue and action.

Identifying the Problem

Statues of Christopher Columbus abound on US college campuses, as do other works of art depicting interactions between Indigenous populations and the European settlers in North America. Such artwork is seen by many as glorifying the genocide of North America’s Indigenous populations, and reinforcing dehumanizing representations of Indigenous peoples. Natasha questioned the presence of this “conquest art” on Pepperdine University’s Seaver College campus in Malibu, California. She was especially concerned with the impact the pieces had on Indigenous students, including herself.

Natasha wanted to make her campus a more welcoming place for future Indigenous students. She was also inspired by the struggle of the Chumash and all Indigenous people impacted by the California mission system. “The Chumash have been in the Malibu area for over 12,000 years, yet my university proudly displayed a mural that glorified the genocidal system that hurt them and their way of life, and depicted them in a racist and marginalizing way,” she says. “Not to mention, this mural was on display in a space that resides on the Chumash ancestral homelands that were stolen from them.”

Natasha believed that her university condoned and endorsed the messages embedded in these symbols through their unquestioned and unchallenged presence on campus. She wanted to inspire critical dialogue surrounding these pieces, of which there was very little prior to the start of her project.

Creating A Solution

Natasha developed a multi-dimensional advocacy project to raise awareness about the harm posed by conquest art on campus, and to advocate for the removal of the university’s Christopher Columbus statue and mural. Her strategy included formally advocating for the removal of both pieces as a member of the Seaver College Ad-Hoc Diversity Council, which was created and overseen by the university administration. She also led a presentation on the subject for the university president. Additionally, Natasha advocated for the removal of both pieces through non-violent direct action and by educating her peer group.

By working closely with an art historian, Natasha was able to better engage with the university administration and its students on the topic of conquest art. She also worked with the art historian to create two new university courses two courses: (1) The Intersection of Art, Art History, and Sociology, with a focus on the representation of Native Americans in art, and (2) Social Art Practice. Throughout the duration of this project, Natasha consulted with the Chumash Indian Museum, whose Indigenous-identifying historical experts served a main source of information for Natasha and her project.

Natasha was initially skeptical that she would be able to achieve widespread support for this project, given that her university is a religiously, socially and politically conservative institution with a very small Indigenous student population. However, support for the project was gained over time through educational and awareness raising efforts that she led, oftentimes through one-on-one conversations, group dialogue or formal conversations. Since Natasha graduated, other students have continued to advocate for the removal of the two conquest art pieces on campus. The university agreed to remove the mural in summer 2016, and student advocates hope to see the Christopher Columbus statue removed in the future.

Lessons Learned

At one point, Natasha partnered with several non-Indigenous artists to explore changing the immediate goal of the project from art removal to art intervention, which uses performance art or other art forms to interact with existing art pieces. However, the proposed art interventions themselves became co-opted by the institution, as the university had the power to select certain art interventions for approval. Recognizing that such "protest art" would be limited in its symbolism and effectiveness, Natasha decided to advocate solely for removal.

Another challenge was determining what solidarity looked like. The artists Natasha worked with on this project were non-Indigenous, so the visual counter-narratives were coming from them and not Indigenous people. Natasha found this to be extremely problematic, so she decided that if an art intervention was going to be used, it needed to come from Indigenous people.

Get Involved!

Natasha encourages others to become involved in these efforts simply by observing their physical spaces and questioning the role symbols play in their communities. You can also support work by Indigenous artists who tell their own stories that challenge the hegemonic symbols and narratives we tend to see in public spaces.

No more than a month after its unveiling, American University in Washington, D.C. announced that it would remove the statue of Leonard Peltier, which was supposed to remain at the university's art museum for several months. "What does it say about our society that Christopher Columbus status abound, yet the statue of an Indigenous activist and political prisoner is being prematurely removed?" asks Natasha.

Funding

Natasha did not require any funding for this project. Instead, she relied on the support of the university community, including the administration, mentors and fellow student leaders.

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About This Project

HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2015

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