Tacoma Art Museum, White River Valley Museum show modern Northwest Coast indigenous artists.
Contemporary Northwest Coast indigenous artists are developing their own expressions out of the age-old traditions of their ancestors. Two South Puget Sound museums are currently hosting exhibits that explore these expressions.
In Auburn, the White River Valley Museum’s “Salish Modern” show opened last month and runs through Dec. 17, while Tacoma Art Museum’s “Cultural imPRINT: Northwest Coast Prints” features six decades of printmaking by Native American and First Nations artists. It closes Aug. 20.
The Northwest Coast designation encompasses indigenous groups living along 2,000 miles of Pacific Northwest coastline, from the Alaskan panhandle, down the British Columbia coast and around the shorelines of Washington State.
‘Cultural imPRINT: Northwest Coast Prints’
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 5-8 p.m. Third Thursday, through Aug. 20, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma (253-272-4258 or ggibsongallery.com).
Noon-4 p.m. Wednesdays -Sundays, 6-8 p.m. First Thursdays, through Dec. 17, White River Valley Museum, 918 H Street SE, Auburn (253-288-7433 or ggibsongallery.com).
Coast Salish refers to a large ethnically and linguistically related subset of that group — tribes living around the Salish Sea. These communities feature cultures and aesthetics that differ from their northern neighbors.
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The TAM exhibit demonstrates these distinctions. The northern Northwest Coast visual style favors a strong primary line, usually black, abetted by thinner lines and shapes, with red the favored secondary color.
One elegant example in this exhibit is the untitled print that artist Robert Davidson of British Columbia’s Haida Nation created to announce his daughter’s birth.
Displayed next to it is “Just About,” a larger screen print that adopts the same bold lines, but plays more with flow and asymmetry. It was created a few decades later by Davidson’s son, Ben Davidson.
This isn’t unusual — skills traditionally are passed from one generation to the next, and more than a quarter of the artists in this exhibit are connected by family ties.
Vancouver, B.C.,-based Susan Point and her daughter, Kelly Cannell, also have work on display.
Point’s work is familiar on Seattle’s public art scene; she designed the tree grates around CenturyLink Field and the gates at the West Seattle Pump Station. The TAM exhibit features more intimately scaled work. Using her customary circular motif, Point created “Tribal Council,” a gold-leaf embossed print. Another work, “Memory,” is a mesmerizing frog metamorphosis screen print that Point and Cannell worked on together.
These artists employ a visual vocabulary of crescents, circles and curved triangles unique to Coast Salish aesthetics. Coast Salish artists also tend to experiment more freely with color than their northern counterparts.
Other Coast Salish works in this exhibit include prints by Washington State artists including University of Washington faculty member Marvin Oliver, Andrea Wilbur-Sigo and Shaun Peterson-Qwalsius. However, Canada-based artists seemed to be disproportionately represented in “Cultural imPRINT,” with 42 pieces out of the 48 displayed.
That’s where the White River Valley Museum’s “Salish Modern” exhibit comes in. It focuses exclusively on the work of Coast Salish artists, many of them from Washington State.
This has been a decades-long campaign championed by White River Valley Museum Director Patricia Cosgrove and exhibit curator Kenneth Greg Watson. As young art historians, they curated the Washington State Centennial’s 1989 exhibit of Native arts, with the aim of educating the public that totem poles were not indigenous to Seattle, but that Coast Salish art, with its subtle yet distinctive patterning, is.
That exhibit helped to bring Salish art to the fore. Now, “Salish Modern” showcases how Coast Salish artists have expanded on traditional themes and advanced their art since then.
Here, too, you’ll find art by Point, Wilbur-Sigo and Peterson.
Some of the other works that push the envelope: a skateboard deck and shoes embellished by Seattle-based Louie Gong, hot-sculpted prismatic glass art by Dan Friday, an exquisite garment woven by Gail White Eagle and paintings by Roger Fernandes and the late Ron Chadusqidub Hilbert.
The exhibits in both Tacoma and Auburn display in dramatic fashion how contemporary indigenous artists are broadening their horizons while upholding their cultural legacy. Our region is the richer for it.