University of British Columbia
The Eloquence of Things: Towards an Indigenous Materiality of the 1925 Pontifical Missionary Exhibition
In this paper, I investigate Indigeneity via cultural belongings made by Indigenous artists at the Pontifical Missionary Exhibition (PME). Held on the grounds of the Vatican, the exhibition featured specially designed pavilions showcasing the art and cultural belongings from missions across the Americas, Asia, Oceania and Africa. Sponsored by Pope Pius XI and with the cooperation of the city of Rome and Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, the exhibition featured over 100, 000 objects, drawing in over one million viewers. Amidst a flurry of world fairs and colonial exhibitions, this exhibition is unique in that it was the first and largest Catholic missionary display in Europe during the early twentieth century. Despite the exhibition’s success, drawing in pilgrims and tourists from across the globe, this potent and revealing example of Catholic missionary history remains under-examined. I focus on the Hall of Americas section of the exhibition which held over 4,000 material things including photographs, sculpture, textiles and diorama displays. Through an analysis of the statuary of Indigenous American delegations, artworks of Indigenous American artists, children’s games, and missionary accounts, the project contributes to a novel understanding of the mobility of visual culture, and the global circulation of Indigenous artists and artworks in metropolitan and imperial spaces such as Rome. This paper promotes expansive thinking about Indigenous peoples from Turtle Island abroad. The mobility of visual culture, art and cultural belongings that were sent in for the exhibition, suggests the rupture and unsettling of colonial aims and Catholic visioning. The consideration of Indigeneity in Italy is innovative, and challenges core colonial assumptions, prevalent in art historical literature on Indigenous peoples, first that Indigenous peoples had already disappeared from history or second that they existed only outside of modern metropolitan cultures and certainly not in Europe.