Lately, I’ve been reading a book called Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums by Michael M. Ames. It has been a really good read and there are a few passages so far that have really caught my eye. For instance in the chapter titled “ Definition of Native Art” there is a paragraph on page 73 that states:
Native or tribal arts are still seen to be somehow inextricably and harmoniously bound up with ceremonial systems, all part of an exotic tribal complex, that is actually impossible, conceptually illogical, and ethically improper to disentangle. It is further assumed that when particular Native social conditions cease to exist, the art associated must die as well since it is not imagined to have any legitimate autonomy of its own. More than one museum and gallery official has suggested that the only good Northwest Coast Indian art is dead Indian art: that which was produced in the misty past when, so the myth of the Romantic Native goes, they lived in a stable, integrated, and happy tribal society. The coming of the Europeans brought about the decline and fall of the untouched primitive, and everything produced thereafter lacks a true essence, a cultural meaning (the traditional social system is no more, after all). Recent works are written off as deviations from scholastically defined traditional standards and not considered suitable for important art galleries. Contemporary Native artists who try new media or new forms are criticized for abandoning their traditions or for catering to the money market. If Native art is to retain its purity, its acceptability in wider society, it seemingly must remain parochial, unchanging, and exotic, that is, ‘primitive.’ Evolution of form and style, like freedom from cultural embeddedness, is a privilege reserved for white art.
When I’d met a couple months ago with Barbara Brotherton, the Native Arts Curator at Seattle Art Museum, she alluded to this issue and mentioned that, in the Pacific Northwest, there was a strong public preference for traditional Native art forms. It is apparent in the Seattle Art Museum’s galleries, where any works apparently by Native artists are cordoned off in the Native galleries, and all of those works reference traditional Native art forms in some way or another. Although this might not seem like such a big deal, it raises the question of why this segregation is not carried out consistently throughout the museum. For instance, I have often seen works by Paul Horiuchi included in the contemporary galleries, but as he is a Japanese artist (and was born in Japan), shouldn’t his work—according to the same standards—be displayed exclusively in the Seattle Asian Art Museum up in Volunteer Park?
One of the contemporary Native pieces on display is a large scale glass screen by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary. It is based off of traditional house screen forms and displayed on a wall opposite an actual traditional house screen. In this case, the juxtaposition of the two objects makes a lot of sense and I think it is wholly appropriate to display this contemporary piece with items that give it more context. Another example is Sonny Assu’s Breakfast Series, which was displayed in 2007 when the Seattle Art Museum reopened downtown. (The picture of the artwork below was taken by Alan Berner and published originally in The Seattle Times.) I remember being struck by the piece when I first saw it and searching online to find out more about the artist later on. Although I can’t find it today, I recall reading an interview with Mr. Assu where he stated that he was excited to have the work the museum’s collection, but he was disappointed that it wasn’t shown in the contemporary galleries. Personally, I thought he had an excellent point.
Jen Graves from The Stranger wrote an entry on Slog (The Stranger’s blog) titled, “The Marooned Art of Sonny Assu” that said:
But then there’s the young Canadian artist Sonny Assu, whose work is marooned in a hallway off the Native American galleries. His cereal boxes are bitingly revamped to reflect the relationship between natives and the governments that screwed them: “Treaty Flakes,” “Lucky Beads,” “Salmon Crisp,” “Salmon Loops,” “Bannock Pops.” In case you noticed his work dangling out there alone in the hall and wondered in what context it really belonged, Assu will talk about his art and influences Saturday (June 9) at 6 pm at SAM’s auditorium.*
*(We might have Suggested this, or at least run it in the listings, but Seattle Art Museum sent the release about the event after the paper went to press this week.)
The work isn’t on display any longer—according to a SAM press release, it is a designated gift to the Native American arts collection from Alexander and Rebecca Stewart—but, I think it is interesting that I wasn’t the only one who wondered what it was doing in a display case all alone in the hallway. It seemed almost like an afterthought, really. And even though the 2007 show at SAM (celebrating the museum’s 75th anniversary) was put on fifteen years after the publication of Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes, it seems apparent that a freedom from cultural embeddedness is definitely a privilege that, if not reserved exclusively for white artists, is certainly something that is still denied to many contemporary Native artists.