A Fantasy of a Single United Culture

The First People, 2008. By Susan Point (Musqueam)

The First People, 2008. By Susan Point (Musqueam)

I ran across a couple of things this morning. I’ll start with the second one, which was a blog post at Seattle Art Museum’s SOAP blog. It included the image above and talked about the piece, which was created specifically for SAM by Musqueam artist, Susan Point. I do really admire her work and think that her carving is pretty sensational. I think she’s found a really great blend between the traditional mediums/designs and what the contemporary art world is seeking. Hence the accolades such as the following from the original blog post:

Because of her high stature and the demand for her work, Susan Point rarely executes large labor-intensive carvings any longer and has turned to work other media. This piece, created specifically for the museum, is a large-scale carved and painted panel that retains the ethos of ancient Coast Salish forms yet, in the hands of this accomplished artist those forms and the content they carry are vibrantly contemporary. Susan has emerged as one of the most successful and sought-after Northwest Coast Native artists and she has been credited with single-handedly reviving the unique Salish style that has lain dormant for nearly 100 years. She is among only a handful of Native female artists working in the media of woodcarving.

The other large scale contemporary Native work that I can think of off-hand is a big glass piece by Preston Singletary which sits on the wall directly across a traditional panel in wood of the type it is modeled after. I do like and appreciate both of these works. I love that SAM includes them on display with all of the traditional pieces. And yet… I still take issue with the Native galleries.

Yes, I know I’m hard on SAM’s Native galleries! And it isn’t that I don’t appreciate their collection or their efforts. I’ve met with the Native curator, Barbara Brotherton, several years ago when I was still in school. She was delightful and offered a lot of insight. She also commented that there isn’t a lot of acceptance locally to Native art outside of what the public is expecting to see. And that is the problem. I think SAM is open to pushing the boundaries in other areas, including ethnic art such as the video installation I recently viewed in the African galleries that was amazing. But the closest I’ve seen to that with Native art at SAM was Sonny Assu’s cereal boxes which was also years ago.

The thing is, both of these large contemporary Native artworks continue to reinforce the public’s assumption that Seattle is the original home to Native cultures that made these works. Singletary’s work is based on his Tlingit ancestry and culture, just as Point’s work references her Musqueam background. Both of these cultures are not local, but from farther north (Canada and/or Alaska). Yes, they are Pacific Northwest Coast, but by that vein, so is work from Oregon and Northwest California coastal communities, which is usually also ignored in favor of the bright and bold totem poles and formline designs from up north. I think these pieces certainly deserve a place and home at SAM. But not to the exclusion of other Native artists, and not in a way that reinforces public stereotypes. So if I’m critical of SAM’s efforts in the Native galleries, it isn’t that I don’t like their work. I just believe that they can and should do better, because I’m a member and support what they do. They bring a lot of really great art to Seattle that we wouldn’t be able to see otherwise!

So, back to that first thing I saw today. It was an article from last year about an exhibition of Native artists’ work in Paris. And there was a quote from someone who viewed the exhibit that I think really sums up public perception of Native art and cultures, not only abroad, but right here in the United States (and here in Seattle). Here’s the paragraph that jumped out at me with emphasis added on the part that I found most interesting:

For a Parisian public largely unfamiliar with contemporary Native art, the opportunity to view the works and meet the artists was unprecedented. French ideas about American Indians are still, like those of many people around the world, associated with the romantic vision derived from Hollywood movies and the photos of Edward Curtis: feather headdresses, leather loincloths and face paint. Many visitors were taken aback by this display of modern Native creativity. “I am surprised by the great diversity,” said one. “These works are all grouped under the label Native. I am looking for a common touch in the paintings, and I don’t see one. Coming to this show, I had a simplistic vision, a fantasy of a single unified culture. But I see a wide variety in this art; these painters are drawing on their culture’s past, yes, but from modernity and classicism as well.

I don’t think I can say it any better than that. And I wish there were more opportunities locally here in Seattle to see that type of Native art on display, especially at the institutions that can help make more of an impact on the public’s perception of Native art.

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