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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The eloquence of things : Indigeneity and the 1925 Pontifical Missionary Exposition Bell, Gloria Jane


Assembled in the heart of the Vatican, the 1925 Pontifical Missionary Exposition (PME) included specially designed pavilions showcasing art and artifacts taken by 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 and attracted over one million visitors during its 13-month run. Despite the exhibition’s success, drawing in pilgrims and tourists from across the globe, this potent and revealing example of the entanglement of Indigenous art and Catholic missionary history remains under-examined. The dissertation focuses on the Hall of Americas section of the exhibition, which held over 4,000 material things including photographs, textiles, diorama displays and statuary. The prehistory of the PME compares the vision of German artist Ferdinand Pettrich, and his statuary of Indigenous Americans that featured prominently in the Hall of Americas, in conversation with Edmonia Wildfire Lewis, an Anishinaabe artist working in Rome. The dissertation then examines the visitors’ experience of the PME and the prevalent fissures in the Rivista Illustrata, the illustrated journal of the exposition. Specifically focusing on misconstrued photographs of Indigenous peoples in the Rivista Illustrata, the dissertation offers a detailed analysis of the space of the Hall of Americas as an allochronic one that denied the contemporary reality of the diversity and modernity of Indigenous nations across Turtle Island, a process of colonial unknowing. Through the allochronic space of the Hall of Americas, and especially in encounters with dioramas and children’s games, visitors also participated indirectly in denying the realities for Indigenous children at Residential Schools in the 1920s. The final chapter then focuses on how First Nations cultural belongings sent in for the PME illuminate the diversity and complexity of Indigenous arts and Indigenous ontologies across Turtle Island. Presenting a new historiography that focuses on the intertwined nature of Indigenous Americans in Vatican City through visual culture—statuary, children’s games, Indigenous cultural belongings, and archival materials—this study showcases the mobility of First Nations art and artists in the Eternal City, an ongoing but under-studied relationship.

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