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ART H 435 A: Thematic Studies In Native-American Art

Context, Performance, and Materiality – Understanding Art through Ethnographic Film

Meeting Time: 
MW 11:30am - 12:50pm
ART 317
Joint Sections: 
ART H 525 B
Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse
Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse

Syllabus Description:

Art History 435/525

Context, Performance, and Materiality -
Understanding Art through Ethnographic Film

Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse
Asst Professor, Indigenous Art History
Curator of Northwest Native Art, Burke Museum

Mon & Wed 11:30-12:50.  Art Building. Room 317 and/or 229

George Nuku (2).jpg Vanderhoop hands.jpg

Photos: left: George Nuku (Maori) from Ta Moko; right: Evelyn Vanderhoop (Haida), photo by Helen Carlson


This seminar is designed for juniors and seniors with critical reading and writing skills and graduate students who will be enrolled in a 500-level section. It may not be suitable for first or second-year students. Please contact me if you have questions.

This class is an upper-level seminar with an intensive reading load. We will watch films in class and outside of class with a critical eye and attention to assigned themes and questions. Students will be responsible for leading and engaging in discussions of the themes and questions listed below. Written responses to the films, readings, and class discussions should synthesize information and concepts across class sessions, readings, geographic and cultural regions, and selected themes.
Experience in art history, anthropology, American Indian Studies or other culturally-grounded disciplines is expected.

Intellectual Platform – AKA the background on how this course came to be:

As an art history professor, I often use films to convey a richer depth of context for the artworks under discussion.

  • I use them to evoke other senses – though films are primarily visual – the combination of sight and sound can evoke a feeling of being in that space – to consider what might be the smell or the embodied feeling that a dancer or mover through that space has.
  • I show them to bring other voices and other types of authority into the classroom.
  • I show films to add the intangible and performative arts to the visual and materials arts, to try to reconnect those connections that are often lost though textual interpretations.
  • In this class, I want to discuss the films themselves and what responsibility we have towards their use. How we must be attentive to the tools of ethnographic filmmaking, especially when we employ the result as interpretive material for understanding art.
  • In this class, I want us to consider what can we learn that we might take into our own publications and analysis considering the new technological platforms of digital humanities.


Foundational Questions:

  • How might we better understand the performative and contextual nature of artworks through film?
  • How does film shape our understanding of an artwork? How does the temporal and sensorial nature of film affect meaning and translation?
  • How can film facilitate the understanding or presentation of artistic processes and questions of materiality?
  • What can we learn about aesthetic properties and signification and what are the limits of film for these inquiries?
  • What questions should we ask of these films so that we are cognizant of viewpoints, biases, film techniques and other factors if we are using these to promote understanding of artworks?

Course Goals:

In this class, we will look at various films that expand our understanding of arts in Indigenous communities, from the Northwest Coast of North America to New Guinea and Africa. We will look at a variety of films that shed light on art practices from many different Indigenous nations and how media is used as a tool to understand cultural phenomena. The films under consideration will evoke questions about different sources of authority, cross-cultural understandings and biases. The films will be discussed in their capacity to expand understandings of the context, performativity, and materiality. How might films help us in ways that text- or static image-based art historical approaches cannot? We will consider the limits and difficulties of filmmaking in terms of “capturing” cultural expression and what ethical questions might be raised about filmmaking practices and the use of films in scholarship. We will consider how new digital platforms might bring these methodological approaches together.

Course Objectives:

This 5-credit course fulfills a requirement for the art history major, is approved for the American Indian Studies major, and the VLPA requirements. In this course, students will:

  • Learn about and develop a deeper understanding of the history of ethnographic film
  • Explore the intersections of art history and ethnographic film
  • Analyze the construction of films as visual representations
  • Analyze the role of film as both evidence for research and as visual creations
  • Develop knowledge and respect for Indigenous cultural diversity
  • Develop a critical lens for viewing media and skills for discussion of complex topics
  • Strengthen critical thinking and writing skills
  • Synthesis a diverse set of evidence to create a persuasive written argument


20% Participation:
     5%  In class; 10% Discussion Board – post and respond; 10% Lead discussion 1x per quarter 
60% Synthesis papers – Week 4, Week 8, Exam week
20% Teaching Film – lead one 30 min session on a film of your choice, Weeks 8-10.

Writing Assignments: Writing assignments will require close reading and analysis of class material. The writing in this course will focus on the central concepts presented in the class and in assigned readings.  Writing will be a key part of engaging with course material through reading responses and other short on-line and in-class writing work. Critical thinking and reflection will be part of the weekly expectation in this class.  Your dedication to documenting your critical thinking in class preparation materials will strongly influence your success on a writing assignments.

Class meetings:  Class meets on Mon and Wed for film screenings and discussions.. An atmosphere of collegial support respecting differences of opinion and divergent worldviews is essential. Participation is encouraged and expected from all members of the class. Prepare to chat with your classmates about your assigned readings. Having your reading packet in class will be handy.  Coming to class prepared is essential to participating in the discussions. 

Expectations for Success:  All students can succeed in this class.  There are a number of resources available on campus for additional help including the tutor for AH 233 and the OUGL writing center for feedback on drafts of written assignments. Please contact me if you would like some assistance finding the best help for you. Your most helpful resources are your classmates and teammates.  Use may use the Groups function on Canvas to aid your individual study time by posting questions to your colleagues or form a study group to review information and augment your understanding.

Contributions & Attendance:  This success of this class depends on the active participation of all members.  By attending, you agree to contribute to discussions of reading material and additional material presented in class.  Your insights and questions on the materials are a valuable part of the content of this class. Share the thoughts you have generated from your assigned writings and model the types of analyses presented in class.
Late & incomplete work:  Writing assignments will be graded down (B to B-) for each day past the due date. Reading responses are due by 9am on the day of discussion.  They may be turned in early but will not be given credit if they are turned in after the discussion day.  Late exams will not be accepted without a doctor's note.  If you need an extension on any work due to personal circumstances, please talk to me in advance so we can plan appropriately.  Flexibility comes with advance notice.

School of Art Policies:

1. Equal Opportunity

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2. Diversity

  • The School of Art + Art History + Design fosters a respectful, inclusive community that supports creative and critical expression and scholarship amidst a culture that accepts the value of every individual. The School encourages students, faculty, and staff to engage in healthy dialogue and respect the values and global perspectives of a diverse population. The School promotes and encourages a culture of compassion, understanding, and an obligation to respectful discourse in classrooms, meeting rooms, studio spaces, and beyond. The School’s philosophy is reflected in our engagement with community partners and research endeavors locally, nationally, and globally.

3. Student Code of Conduct

  • The University of Washington has established rules regarding student conduct. Through the Student Conduct Code, UW students hold themselves to the highest standards of ethics, integrity, and accountability.
  • More information at UW Community Standards & Student Conduct (CSSC).

Policies on Conduct

The University of Washington is committed to fostering an environment where the free exchange of ideas is an integral part of the academic learning environment. Disruption or domination of classroom discussions can prohibit other students from fully engaging and participating. Any student causing disruption may be asked to leave any class session, and, depending on the severity and frequency of that behavior, an incident report may be filed with Community Standards and Student Conduct. As a condition of enrollment, all students assume responsibility to observe standards of conduct that will contribute to the pursuit of academic goals and to the welfare of the academic community. For more detailed information on these standards, please visit this page.


Plagiarism/Academic Dishonesty

Plagiarism and cheating constitute academic misconduct and will not be tolerated. Plagiarism is the use of other people's words, images, thoughts, and/or ideas without properly citing their source. Plagiarism may involve any of the following: 1) blatant copying of others, including your classmates; 2) paraphrasing another without acknowledging the source; 3) using other peoples' theories or ideas without acknowledging the source; 4) utilizing any fact, not of your own creation/discovery, that is not already common knowledge; 5) turning in another persons' work as your own. Plagiarized work will result in a “0” for the assignment. If you have any questions concerning this issue, please see me immediately and/or see the Statement of Academic Responsibility

VeriCite anti-plagairism software:

NoticeThe University has a license agreement with VeriCite, an educational tool that helps prevent or identify plagiarism from Internet resources and work submitted by previous students of this course. I will use the service in this class; all assignments and quizzes you submit will be checked by VeriCite. The VeriCite Report will indicate the amount of original text in your work and whether all material that you quoted, paraphrased, summarized, or used from another source is appropriately referenced. All instances of intentional plagiarism will result in zero credit on the assignment, and a report of indicating academic dishonesty to the School of Art and the University of Washington. For further information, visit:

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Catalog Description: 
Approach to Native-American art through themes and issues. Focus varies from year to year (e.g. Shamanism in Native-American art, gender identity in Native-American art, social and political aspects of Native-American art, issues in contemporary Native-American art).
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
February 8, 2019 - 2:55pm