A largely empty box rests on a plinth in the center of Fazal Sheikh’s current exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery.
The container was meant to hold an offering from a Diné spiritual advisor whom the artist met and befriended while working on Exposure, a series of photos – included in the Yale broadcast – about the displacement of indigenous communities in the American Southwest caused by environmental extraction. But before the exhibit opened in New Haven, Connecticut in September, the museum informed the artist and adviser that it would not be exhibiting the offering.
The reason for the decision, a spokesperson for the institution told Artnet News, was that “the offering contained items of cultural and ceremonial significance” to the Diné people.
“The Native American and Connecticut Indigenous cultures did not believe it was appropriate to publicly display the ceremonial materials in the offering as works of art,” the representative said. “The gallery‘s decision not to display the entire offering was made out of sensitivity to the local tribes and tribal lands on which Yale sits.”
“There are a lot of complexities in displaying Native American ceremonial objects in a museum,” gallery director Stephanie Wiles added in a statement.
Now the only item in the box meant to hold the offering is a note, written by the artist, that reads Erasure/People Land Culture.
Organized by a Utah-based Diné elder named Jonah Yellowman, the offering contained a ceremonial Navajo basket; an arrowhead; an eagle bone flute; medicine packets; and sachets of white corn, cedar, and sage, among other items. Sheikh had previously included the gifts in his presentation of Exposure in “Towards a common cause», a group exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago in 2021.
He planned to do the same at Yale. But in July this year, two months before the proposed opening, members of the Yale Art Gallery curatorial team, including Judy Ditner, associate curator of photography, and Royce Young Wolf, postdoctoral associate in art and curatorial Native Americans, held a Zoom Meeting with Sheikh and Yellowman to discuss the offer.
“We made it very clear to them that it was not a matter of repatriation,” Sheikh told Artnet News. “It is not a work that is sequestered in a museum vault. It is something that is offered on loan as a kind of gesture of understanding of [Yellowman’s] Culture.
“As we explained to the curators, the items I was to bring as part of my offering were not actual ceremonial items, but decoys, to be shared with the museum for educational purposes, to teach people the Diné community,” Yellowman said. the Yale Daily News.
But Ditner and his team informed the men that the offer would not be displayed on the show.
“The response was that they couldn’t dedicate the resources to make sure people understood the offer correctly,” Sheikh told Artnet News. “It’s one of the best endowed universities on the planet, and yet it wouldn’t devote the resources to this kind of substantial gesture.”
The artist called the discussion an “affront” to Yellowman. “During this conversation, they were talking about trauma and disrespect, but they were disrespecting and re-traumatizing a living elder in real time.”
The Yale University Art Gallery representative explained that before the museum’s curatorial team chose not to include Yellowman’s offering in Sheikh’s exhibit, they “had conversations with Native American advisers and Connecticut Native Peoples, as well as with National Native Cultural Advisors,” who informed his decision. (Those consulted in the process asked to remain anonymous.)
The spokesperson noted that Yale curators had discussed alternatives with Sheikh and Yellowman, but the parties “were unable to come to an agreement and the contribution was withdrawn,” according to the museum.
Sheikh clarified that after Yellowman’s initial offer was turned down, the spiritual advisor suggested a second bundle including four ears of corn – one for each of the four directions as the Navajo origin story. But the gallery turned down the second offer, Sheikh said, because of the special precautions required to show organic material. (The corn should have been freeze-dried, per museum rules.)
After that, the elder asked the artist to call him. His question to me was, ‘Why are we going there when they don’t trust us?’ Sheikh called back. “Frankly, I couldn’t answer that question, because he was right.”
The artist considered withdrawing from the exhibition altogether. He ultimately opted out after speaking to Wiles, who offered to include a “director’s statement” of apology on the show.
“The gallery would like to apologize to the artist and visitors for making a change to the exhibition just before it opened,” reads the text, which hangs near the pedestal.
“In the heart of Fazal Sheikh’s Exposure the project is In place, a contemplative space that allows the visitor to reflect on the landscape of the Bears Ears region of southeastern Utah and the urgent need to protect these sacred lands. When the exhibit debuted at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum in July 2021, the centerpiece of In place was the generous offering of Jonah Yellowman, a Diné spiritual leader, made as a gesture of reverence and healing.
“However,” the statement continued, “due to the museum’s ongoing self-examination, the pedestal here remains empty. We sincerely apologize to Jonah Yellowman and all who have helped bring this work to us. We hope that the exhibition as a whole, and In place in particular, will generate a much-needed conversation between our visitors and our wider community about the protection of sacred landscapes and the treatment of indigenous communities.
When reached for this story, Sheikh was in Utah. He had just completed a cross-country trip to return the offering to Yellowman, which he called a “restorative” process. The goal, he said, wasto restore a balance not only in our relationship and the bundles, but also in the foundations of what we tried to generate through the conversation.
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