Friday, May 1, 2015

First Peoples exihibtt at the museum

So, last Sunday Janice and I took a break and headed uptown via the light rail for another of our all-too-rare visits to the Seattle Art Museum.

The special exhibit we'd come to see was INDIGENOUS BEAUTY: MASTERWORKS OF AMERICAN INDIAN ART FROM THE DIKER COLLECTION (which is due to run for two more weeks, ending May 17th). We were lucky to have picked a slow day when the rooms weren't crowded and we got to spend as much time as we liked looking at the displays.

There were a lot of interesting items on exhibit, divided by region and cultural groupings: arctic, subarctic, California + Great Basin (prob. the group I knew the least about), Southwest (pueblos), 'plateau and plains' (e.g. Sioux et al*), 'woodlands and southeast' (which covered everything from Creek to Seneca). Last of all came Northwest Coast, which got about as much space as all the rest put together.  I was sorry not to see a single Caddo artifact in the whole exhibit (that being the native people from my part of the country, the ArkLaTex) and surprised to see only a single Duwamish item.  Since the Duwamish were the people who lived where Seattle is now(Chief Seattle himself was Duwamish),  I'd have thought they'd be more to the fore.

My favorite items in the exhibit were four:

1 & 2. evil dead masks. These were meant to represent the spirits of evil dead people. Their eyes were just slits, perhaps indicating that they were closed. One's mouth was a similar slit, which was sinister enough, but the other was puckered to whistle, which was worse. The signage said that these evil dead could not talk but communicated through whistles instead -- which reminded me of the cries of the Nazgul, and even more so of the famine spirits in HIAWATHA, one of the few genuinely creepy passages in that once-famous and now almost unreadable work.

3. the spooky dagger. This had a face on the handle. The dagger itself looked fairly normal, but if you looked at the shadow cast by the bright lighting on the wall behind it, you could see a silhouette with pinpoint eyes and a jagged mouth. The shadow looked v. like something Gorey wd have put on the cover of a John Bellairs book.

4. the Duwamish drum. As I said, this was the only item I saw in the whole exhibit that came from the local culture, the people who lived where Seattle is now, and it was a striking one: a drum hanging high up on the wall, decorated with a spirit figure unique to the drum.

One thing that I really liked was seeing a beautiful woven basket in one case while not far away was an old black-and-white photo of the weaver, with that same pot by her side.  Janice's favorite piece was a beaver bowl made by somebody with a deft hand and a sense of humor. But the thing she found most moving was a short film clip of a someone showing native masks created centuries ago by members of his tribe: that his people had ever made masks had been completely forgotten, thanks to the efforts of missionaries and teachers and government officials over the years. When those beautiful, sophisticated art pieces that'd once held so much significance were uncovered in an excavation, it was a startling revelation to them of a lost tradition: they'd not just forgotten about the masks, and what each represented, but forgotten that their people ever practiced such an art form -- all lost, all taken away.

One unusual feature of this exhibit is that it had a fair number of recent works in it. I had mixed feelings about the inclusion of modern pieces by native artists (potters, jewelry makers, totem-pole carvers, even a manga artist, et al) intermixed with pieces decades if not centuries old. Janice felt it was appropriate, a way to show that these cultures had survived concerted efforts to eradicate them and thus celebrate their continuance in the modern day. I get that, but felt that while the point was worthwhile it diminished the impact of the exhibition for me.

--John R.

*the depiction of the Battle of Little Big Horn by one of the survivors made me feel sorry for the horses!

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