This year, April’s First Thursday Pioneer Square Art Walk landed on the same day as Holy Thursday. The timing was perfect for one work in particular from eco-art pioneer Buster Simpson’s exhibition Double Bound at Greg Kucera Gallery (the artist’s first solo gallery show). Hanging in one of the back galleries near the storage is “Duwamish Supper,” a relatively straightforward image: a photograph of eight plates collaged over a puzzle depicting the Last Supper, which Holy Thursday commemorates. However like much of Simpson’s work, this minimal gesture carries immense meaning tied directly to a particular place and its inhabitants. In this case, it is the Duwamish River and the people who have lived near or on the river, both past and present.
The foreground image of eight dirtied plates on a muddied bank is documentation from a series of projects in which Simpson left unfired plates in rivers polluted by industrial waste. Over a period of months, the plates would absorb toxins, heavy metals and pollutants from the river, and then be removed and kiln fired, sealing the muck into the ceramic. The plates in the image were exposed in the Lower Duwamish, the five-mile stretch that flows into Elliot Bay in Seattle. The heavy industry that lines its banks has dumped pollutants into its waters for nearly a century, and the Lower Duwamish was designated as a superfund site in 2001 by the US Environmental Protection Agency, marking it as one of the most polluted areas in the nation.
Those familiar with Simpson’s work and those who saw BUSTER SIMPSON // SURVEYOR at the Frye Art Museum two years ago will recognize these plates from the artist’s When the Tide is Out, the Table is Set series begun in 1983. The title of that series is taken from a Salish saying that expresses the abundance of shellfish at low tide and twists it in an ironic reference to the abundance of pollution in the river today. This tragic irony is a chief characteristic of Simpson’s work, which directly addresses the environmental degradation caused by humans’ intervention and shortsighted exploitation of resources.
The “Duwamish” of the title not only refers to the river but also the Dkhw’Duw’Absh tribe (Duwamish is the Anglicization) who inhabited the area for thousands of years before the arrival of the Denny Party at Alki in 1851. Unlike other countries that have been colonized across the globe and have achieved independence such as Mexico, India and Algeria, to name a small fraction, the United States will never be postcolonial. We, who live in Seattle, live on stolen ground, taken with The Point Elliot Treaty of 1855 that promised the Duwamish reservation land and other tribal rights that never materialized. The Duwamish to this day are still unrecognized by the US Federal Government, and have been fighting to reverse the 2001 decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that declared that the tribe had gone extinct. The Dkhw’Duw’Absh tribe has nearly six hundred members today.
The layering of this image over a puzzle of the Last Supper further deepens the sense of tragic irony that implies that the “Duwamish Supper” may become our last supper. The Duwamish River that once provided life for the Dkhw’Duw’Absh now threatens to take life away. It should also be noted that the puzzle erroneously paints Jesus as blonde and white (Jesus was a Jew and most likely had brown skin as he lived in the near east), which echoes the erasure, exploitation and cultural imperialism experienced by the Dkhw’Duw’Absh and so many other indigenous peoples. These nuances that acknowledge the complex history and environmental degradation of the Duwamish River make “Duwamish Supper” a powerful piece. Through its imagery, Simpson presents a puzzle that cannot be solved (reinforced by the fact that some of the puzzle pieces are missing) reflecting how no single solution can “fix” the river. Instead, it seems that the best we can hope for is to reshape the pieces to create a better picture.
“Duwamish Supper” is on view through May 16 at Greg Kucera Gallery (212 Third Ave S).