In this edition of HFJ @ Home, two Cornell seniors in the course “Indigenous Issues in Global Perspectives” (AIIS 1110) share what they learned from indigenous art in the Museum’s collection.

Anna Ullmann ’20 explains how this year’s virtual class took on new resonance.

Every year, Dr. Karim-Aly Kassam collaborates with the Johnson Museum and curator Andrew Weislogel on the course “Indigenous Issues in Global Perspectives” (AIIS 1110). This year, they cocurated a group of works from the Museum’s collection for a class installation, “Personhood, Pluralism, and Hope,” to present indigenous art from around the world. Despite the circumstances of COVID-19, the class still had the opportunity to engage with the artworks virtually rather than in person as planned in the Museum’s study gallery. Not only was this opportunity an important component of the curriculum, but in this time of instability it became necessary for students to be able to discover elements of hope embedded in the pieces of art.

I was lucky enough to engage with many of these artworks twice, last year as a student in the course, and now as an undergraduate Teaching Assistant. The first time I understood that each artwork carries a purpose. They may be multifaceted, evoking various emotions in different people, but art inspires dialogue. As a result, art is used as an outlet for emotions associated with knowledge.

This message turned out to be more powerful this year because it all became more relevant. This is why the artworks were so necessary to share with the students. Here they were exposed to an example of how an aesthetic methodology of hope can become a mechanism required for survival, both for many indigenous peoples around the world as well as for each of us today.

It was a privilege to read students’ papers connecting central themes of the class to the artwork. It was exciting to see how others interpreted the art, analyzed it in a completely different way, and made new connections. Katie Warner ’20, explained, “When personhood is combined with the notion of pluralism, it serves as a reminder that human survival and wellbeing is dependent upon the interrelations of other humans, other species, and nature.” Analyzing the installation’s themes has allowed them to build on the information from the course in an effort to decolonize their minds and see how the world may function with a different perspective.

Finn Lynch ’23, connected a class discussion we had a few weeks ago regarding inuksuits (rock formations used as indicators of landmarks, food, etcetera) to emphasize, “Just like the inuksuits, the art exhibit as a whole symbolizes this unity and relationship between nature and culture.” The art sheds light on students’ analysis of intricate details and highlights the interconnectivity and relations we have to the world around us, a relevant matter given the circumstances of our lives today.

We are especially grateful for this collaboration as the Johnson provided a crucial opportunity of bringing art and people together despite this challenging time.

Mason Leist ’20 compares three different artworks used in class.

In We All Live Together Stan Greene depicts an intertwined group of beings [and] illustrates that we as humans are among diverse creatures that are sustained by the land, and thus have duty to sustain it. Each of the creatures depicted in We All Live Together appear to grasp each other in order to remain balanced in their conglomerate form.



[This] series of prints depicts images traditionally created on sand or affixed to buckskin [and] were used to prepare Navajo men enlisting in World War II. [They] serve as small-scale bird’s-eye view maps of ceremonies, in which Navajo warriors would sit in the middle of the images done on the ground in order to gain healing and preparational powers for entering war. (See the full portfolio here.)


Yinarupa Nangala’s mapping style in Ancestral women at Mukula is derived from a tradition of similar dot-like paintings depicting Indigenous environments. The detailed maps serve as a coded typography of the land. This descriptive mapping is a literal manifestation of Indigenous ecological knowledge. Overlaying this extensive knowledge with notions of ancestral creation directly affirms the extension of personhood to Indigenous landscapes. Through honoring strength in ancestral women, Pintupi are inherently honoring their land’s ecological diversity.

Click on the slideshow to see additional works from the class.