Upon entering Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection at the Seattle Art Museum, one is faced with a large map of North America divided into nine, color-coded regions, such as Western Arctic, Northwest Coast and Plateau & Plains. The borders of these regions are more arbitrary than historical, but were drawn along cultural and geographical lines to help audiences glimpse the diversity of tribes and First Nations that existed before colonization, imperialism and genocide all but wiped them away. To provide a little perspective, as of May 2013 there are 566 sovereign indigenous Nations currently recognized by the US federal government. That does not include the Duwamish, the indigenous tribe of Seattle and one among the many Lushootseed tribes who have lived here for 10,000 years.
The map seems as though it could have been lifted from the pages of a middle school textbook, and the brightly colored walls that designate objects (122 total in the exhibition) in regional clusters reinforces this. It makes it easily navigable for field trips, as a quiet view into indigenous art that until just the last few decades would not have been shown in a fine arts museum. Until the later part of the 20th century, such work would only be deemed suitable for an ethnic and historical museum. Of course, this says nothing to the assumption that all indigenous peoples approve of such artifacts being shown in a cloistered institution, divorced from the context of tradition and ritual. Some disapprove quite vehemently.
This needs to be said, but this does not make institutions the enemy. Important strides have been made through collaborations between museums, scholars and Native communities, devoted to preserving and even recovering cultural knowledge and traditions. The Tacoma Art Museum and the Burke are other local examples. The effects of these efforts have yet to diffuse to the average non-Native viewer, whose understanding of these profound and diverse cultures is characterized by generalities, stereotypes, crude caricatures and callous appropriation. (For examples, look no further than Urban Outfitters and the Washington Redskins.) Shows such as Indigenous Beauty and Seattle Collects—a smaller, simultaneous exhibition of local indigenous masterworks from the Northwest Coast—remain vital to debunk misconceptions and invite viewers to enter other worlds through the variety, sophistication and virtuosity of the objects.
Indigenous Beauty emphasizes the aesthetic qualities in accordance with how Charles and Valerie Diker collected them, but admiring these works only for their visual richness ignores and even further erases the history and culture from which they came. The exhibition emphasizes three interrelated themes—diversity, beauty and knowledge. Seattle Collects Northwest Coast Native Art echoes these themes by offering a closer look into the unique and vibrant Native cultures of our region, stretching from the Columbia River to Southeast Alaska, from pre-contact to the present. The exhibitions use a discussion of aesthetic values (technical virtuosity, creative execution) as their hook, but can only succeed—and do for the most part—if they draw one toward deeper consideration of the complex histories, meanings and functions these objects contain.
Art by Appropriation
Charles and Valerie Diker view their collection of American Indian works—numbering nearly 400—but to declare many of the pieces “artworks” is to use an applied term. As guest curator David Penny notes in the introduction to the catalog for Indigenous Beauty, “the absorption of American Indian art into the canon of world art in the twentieth century can be characterized as “art by appropriation” in contrast to “art by intent,” to borrow the expressions developed by anthropologist Muruška Svašek.” (Penny is an internationally recognized scholar on Native American Art, and the catalog for the show is a great resource, as the sheer number of objects is overwhelming to grasp in one trip.)
Art by appropriation refers to the act of taking an object created for a specific function and reclassifying it as art. The most famous example of this kind of reclassification in the history of art was when in 1917 Marcel Duchamp submitted a factory-made urinal to the inaugural exhibition by the American Society of Independent Artists. On it he scrawled only the pseudonym R. Mutt (a homonym for the German word Armut, meaning “poverty”). It was rejected by the Society, but Fountain, as Duchamp called it, became a formal challenge to the very definition of art—or rather to the institutional definition of art, which gives license to institutions (galleries and museums) to declare what is and isn’t art, and which is largely accepted as the most culturally binding definition of art to this day. Conveniently enough, there is a small but thoughtful exhibition on the third floor of the Seattle Art Museum called The Duchamp Effect that examines this.
There are many different kinds of art by appropriation, and the sort one sees with Duchamp is not the same as in Indigenous Beauty. Duchamp was already a man of the dominant culture and connected to institutions. His appropriation was also within the culture, just across divided spheres—the scatological and utilitarian, the sublime and meaningful—and his statement with Fountain at least in part called attention to this. A more vexing form of appropriation occurs across cultures, namely when a minority or oppressed group sees elements of its culture taken and refashioned at their expense for the benefit of the pilfering group. The exhibit Your Feast has Ended at the Frye in 2014 included many responses to this by artist Nicholas Galanin, whose art pushed back against appropriation and the erasure of indigenous traditions, including efforts by the US educational system, which prevented Native children from learning the language of their tribes. In oral tribes, language was everything—the history, the myths, the consciousness. Meanwhile, children of the majority population barely grasp the United States’ oppressive history toward Native Americans. I mentioned earlier that the exhibit seems to be built to allow for schoolchildren to come in and get a glance at these objects, so when one knows this larger history there is an almost queasy dissonance to it all.
In Indigenous Beauty and Seattle Collects, by seeing these objects presented as art by an art museum, one is seeing a form of art by appropriation. This form uses institutional power to—in the western mode—”elevate” objects from the commonplace to the artful. The question of whether or not this can revitalize interest and preserve traditions in a meaningful way has yet to be answered. Examples of artful objects include a man’s coat by the Naskapi people of the Eastern Subarctic, a pair of Aleut masks from the Western Arctic and a ceremonial headdress and frontlet of the Nuxalk of the Northwest Coast, all of which were never intended for display in a gallery or a museum. The functions and histories of these objects remind us that our contemporary conception of art is culturally contingent and a by-product of specific modes of thought.
If one resists classifiying these objects as art, one can quickly slide into classifying them only as artifacts, and the category of artifact is once again an applied term derived from Western thought, namely ethnography. “Art” and “artifact” are constructs that have little meaning to the individuals and communities in which these objects were created. That said, recent and contemporary works in the Diker Collection like “Oystercatcher Rattle” by Tlingit glass artist Preston Singletary were created with that Western idea of art in mind.
The distinction between “art by appropriation” and “art by intent” as well art versus artifact help remind us of the different and original functions, uses and ideas behind many of the objects that reside in vitrines in the museum. They are objects removed from their context that carry traces of the stories, ceremonies, dances, battles and songs for which they were created. Despite the temporal and cultural distance between many of these objects and the audience of Indigenous Beauty and Seattle Collects, one is invited to appreciate and imagine otherwise.
The Stories They Tell
Because the provenance of each object is unique in the exhibition, it can be helpful to first consider them independently. Here are three of the hundred plus masterworks one could consider:
The Yup’ik people of Western Alaska in Hooper Bay have a saying: “ella-gguq allamek yuituq.” It means, “the world contains no others, only persons.” These wise words—that bear repeating many times over—encapsulate their worldview of the many kinds of persons which includes human people, nonhuman people (animals) and other-than-human people (spiritual beings). All three of these types can be found in a Yup’ik mask from the end of the nineteenth century. (It should be noted that the majority of works on view come from around this time period.) Possibly created by a shaman inspired by personal encounters in the spirit world, this mask displays a continuum of persons by merging a salmon, seal, loon and part of a human face and hand together into a single image. Notably, the Yup’ik have generally discarded, sold or traded these masks after festivals, in which their creations would come alive through dance, gesture, song and drumming. This practice is unique and unlike many other indigenous peoples of North America who have long owned, stored and seldom willingly relinquished their ceremonial masks.
While the Yup’ik and peoples throughout these regions have been making and wearing masks for centuries, missionaries, beginning in the nineteenth century, tried to forbid such practices, labeling them as “uncivilized” and “devil worship.” This greatly reduced the use of these masks, causing many of the stories, songs and dances that brought them to life be forgotten. In recent decades, mask making and the dances and songs that accompanied them have thankfully resurged.
This persistence of tradition can also be found in one of the most visually striking pieces in the Diker Collection, “Maternal Journey” by Rhonda Holy Bear, a Cheyenne River Lakota and one of the most important Plains artists working today. The miniature sculpture is exceptional for its meticulous recreation of mid-nineteenth century Plains attire and accouterments—an Apsaalooke mother dressed in elaborate regalia on a mare with an infant and two children, altogether just 31 inches tall and 42 inches long. The various objects and articles of clothing, such as the beaded shirt the young boy is wearing or the decorated baby carrier allude to original pieces in the Diker Collection such as a beaded boy’s shirt and baby carrier, displayed nearby. Holy Bear’s sculpture helps provide a picture of a full Plains ensemble, demonstrating the original function these pieces held by joining form and content to magnificent effect.
During the nineteenth century, many Native artists began to incorporate new materials and forms into their work, such as glass beads from Venice and Belgium acquired from fur traders and settlers. These were featured prominently in Plains regalia, and these creative transformations echo the continually changing nature of these objects and practices through the millennia, showing unabashed influence through exchange between tribes and First Nations and non-Native peoples.
“Red” by Michael Yahgulanaas, a contemporary visual artist raised in Delkatla, Haida Gwaii (on the coast of British Columbia in Canada) shown in Seattle Collects is an extraordinary example of cross-cultural influence and adaptation. “Red” references a classic Haida oral narrative in the form of Japanese-style manga, to tell the story of a prideful leader of a small village who becomes blinded by revenge when raiders abduct his sister. The individual pages laid out together form a stunning, visual tapestry fifteen feet in length. The black lines that divide one panel from another are curved in contrast to the rigid lines one often encounters in manga, and create a larger image, reminiscent of a traditional Haida decorated screen. It’s a work that demands to be viewed from far away and up close, to be visually admired and read for the importance of the story it has to tell.
An Invitation to Listen
Indigenous Beauty is the most comprehensive exhibition of Native American works ever shown at the Seattle Art Museum, made even more extensive with Seattle Collects and new works on display from the museum’s permanent collection of Native American works in the third floor galleries. The immense beauty of these objects will surely catch the attention of visitors, who will hopefully give them deeper consideration and allow the objects to speak for themselves…in the ways they were intended to speak and which an institution cannot speak for, even at its most earnest.
After setting up things in a categorical way at the front, the museum does step out of the way and tries to foster this more direct interface between object and audience through small interactive monitors interspersed throughout the exhibition. These monitors include additional images and brief video clips, some featuring indigenous artists and educators who elucidate specific works, techniques or styles.
On the monitor in final room, dedicated to the indigenous peoples of the Woodlands & Southeast, there is a video wherein native educator Romayne Watt, a member of the Seneca Indian Nation, offers some wise words: “I think sometimes we should listen more than we should talk.”
If displays of art like this in our institutions are an attempt at understanding and preserving these cultures, the issue we have left to face is whether or not we are making any attempt to see “the other” as not an other. Are we at a point where we go beyond the imperialism of our forefathers (which means even beyond “white guilt” left to all who inherited their spoils), and actually challenge ourselves to really find further unity in the human, familial sense—or maybe even the metaphysical sense? Do we dare humble ourselves to such an extent? Imperialism is part of the American psyche—which is also not easily humbled—so it is asking a lot of audiences to defy all that. And yet, seeing “them” as “us” seems to be the only truly redeemable thing we can do, the only way to preserve the most precious aspects of objects made for “persons” across species. Otherwise, a display such as this runs the risk of being a residual flex of the imperialism that was brought across the ocean blue. It seems as though the there is an attempt at pointing us in the right direction with this collection, but as always, it is up to the individual to listen and see it through.
Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection and Seattle Collects Northwest Coast Native Art is on view at the Seattle Art Museum through May 17.