Spotlight on Empire: Guiding Questions

We have selected a group of featured images and assembled a list of prompts to help spark your thinking around our theme of “Empire.” Keep in mind that none of these questions have correct or simple answers, and should be seen simply as a starting point. If you are interested in a specific work you’ve seen in the galleries but is not illustrated here, we are happy to provide an image for study purposes.

The concepts of colonialism and imperialism can be difficult to understand. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a good primer on these two terms and how they relate here.

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  • How do images reflect the economy of an empire? Which featured images represent travel, trade routes, and transactional exchanges? What narratives might be gleaned from such images?
  • How can we understand the narratives of empire in terms of power structures, considered from different perspectives? Compare and contrast two featured works, one glorifying the reach of an empire and one challenging that narrative.
  • How do landscapes and representations of our natural environment reveal attitudes about empires? To which audiences do these images cater, and whose perspectives do they privilege?
  • What role does religion and/or spirituality play in the solidification of empires? Which featured works might address this facet of life to either justify or challenge an empire?
  • In her “1880 Crow Peace Delegation” series, Wendy Red Star engages directly with nineteenth-century portraits of Crow warriors. How does this interplay between past and present speak to the persistence or adaptation of culture under an empire? How do other contemporary featured artists use historic material in their work?
  • More broadly, how do contemporary featured works address the legacy of American imperialism, directly or indirectly?
  • How have Indigenous artists addressed American settler colonialism through their work?
  • What featured works depict the US military? What can they tell us about American imperialism?
  • How do Hew Locke’s decorated busts connect to recent movements to remove Confederate monuments and other public sculptures?
  • What are other meanings of the word “empire”? How do entrepreneurial concepts such as a “beauty empire” or a “news empire” relate to the geopolitical meaning of the term? How can we see the connection between these different types of empires play out in the featured images?


Take a closer look at some of the spotlight’s featured images here.