Unreserved

'There was no new world,' says Native American art historian about a proposed Mayflower installation

This year for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage, large celebrations were planned in Plymouth, England — the place where the ship’s voyage began. In the early stages of planning, art historian Stephanie Pratt was brought in to help with the educational programming for the celebrations.
The massive light display celebrating Mayflower 400 in Plymouth lighting up the water around Mount Batten Pier. (Wayne Perry)

This year for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage, large celebrations were planned in Plymouth, England — the place where the ship's voyage began. 

In the early stages of planning the Mayflower events, art historian Stephanie Pratt was brought in to help with the educational programming for the celebrations. She is a member of the Crow Creek Dakota Tribe in Fort Thompson, South Dakota, and is a professor at the University of Plymouth. 

She was warned that working on the committee might be a "poisoned chalice," since the events initially looked to celebrate the Mayflower without recognizing the darker side of history.

Stephanie Pratt is a member of the Crow Creek Dakota Tribe in Fort Thompson, South Dakota, and is a professor at the University of Plymouth. (Submitted by Stephanie Pratt)

Working on the committee meant that Pratt got to look over applications from artists, and other creatives hoping to contribute to the Mayflower events. She recalled looking over an application submitted by the arts collective Still/Moving, which shocked her. 

"I think when the first announcement of funding for art projects under the Mayflower umbrella came up, these guys took advantage, but they admitted to me later on that they — at the beginning — had really no idea what the Mayflower was or what it what it represented, certainly not what it represented to Indigenous peoples in North America," said Pratt. 

"What they came up with was the idea that they would have in lights the words 'The New World.' They presented that to locals in Plymouth, some of whom were very critical and said, 'no you … absolutely cannot do that.'"

The collective was told to talk to Pratt, who explained why it was problematic. 

"My very first reaction was, 'no, that's ridiculous. You absolutely cannot say 'The New World.' There never was a new world. We live on one planet,'" said Pratt. 

With the help of Pratt, the collective decided on a different light display, which would read, "No New Worlds," installed at the Mount Batten Pier in Plymouth, England. 

As an art historian, over the years Pratt has seen many problematic portrayals of Indigenous people in art. 

"I would have to say there really aren't any accurate pictures [of Native Americans], because Europeans carried with them all their baggage. The artists who were depicting [Native American people] … had no real knowledge of what actually happened when Columbus landed, or the pilgrims landed," said Pratt. 

"So the image becomes the way that we start to think about these things, and particularly the hierarchical … image of the kind of heroic explorer." 

When thinking of how Indigenous people are portrayed in early art, Pratt recalls one image of Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer, who many claim inspired the name America. 

Stephanie Pratt says Jan van der Straet's Allegory of America, an image of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, highlights the problematic themes that appear in art about the relationship between Europeans and Native Americans. (MET website)

"There's a really famous image of Amerigo Vespucci … landing on the shore where a naked woman is lying in a hammock and she's being awakened," said Pratt. 

"I mean, there's no other way to read that but as a gendered, violent intrusion, rape into a kind of sleepy, unaware landscape … it's just frightening how strong the ideology is in most images." 


This segment was produced by Katie Toth.

now