A review of one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of Native American art ever to grace the walls of Seattle Art Museum.
Curators and collectors of Native American art are fully aware of the value-laden, contradictory choices in displaying these objects: Emphasize the visual qualities and you risk minimizing the spiritual, educational or functional contexts out of which the art emerged. Emphasize the cultural contexts and you risk reducing the objects to ethnological readings, downplaying their beauty and craftsmanship.
The moment you enter the first room of the Seattle Art Museum’s blockbuster exhibition of American Indian Art — where centuries-old masks are displayed sparingly against vivid purple walls — you know this is going to be a show that foregrounds an aesthetic experience.
“Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection” showcases 122 works from across North America in rooms that feature cream and gray ceramic pots against burnt-orange walls or intricately woven textiles against red walls. My favorite is the sky-blue room where the warm tones of sheep-hide shirts positively glow and the mind-blowing beadwork shimmers.
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays, through May 17, Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle; $12.50-$19.50 (206-654-3100 or seattleartmuseum.org).
Where anesthesia dulls the senses and quiets the body, an aesthetic encounter can not only sharpen visual acuity but activate an entire bodily response. Corporeal awareness is important for this art; masks covered faces during dances, baby carriers brought bodies together, wooden bowls were passed from hand to hand during ceremonies.
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But the exhibition spotlights aesthetic value. According to guest curator David Penney, an internationally recognized scholar in this area, the decision to “isolate the objects, to emphasize their drama and beauty” was in keeping with the way the objects were collected by Charles Diker, chairman of an investment management firm, and Valerie Diker, a philanthropist. The Dikers’ interest in modernism focuses on “quiet, introspective looking.”
Make no mistake. This is not a vanity exhibition, showing off the holdings of a wealthy couple. According to experts, there are many “masterworks” here. Masterful because they clearly manifest the highest levels of artistry but also because they were created by individuals and families who were — or are — highly respected within their communities as artists and as teachers of craft.
Portions have been on display at the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but this is the first comprehensive exhibition of the important collection. According to Barbara Brotherton, curator at the Seattle Art Museum, it is also the first comprehensive exhibition of North American native art to be shown at SAM. Other shows have been more specialized, focusing, for example, on Northwest or Southwest art.
To complement this big show, Brotherton has organized a smaller but still potent exhibition of Northwest Coast art drawn from local private collections. In addition to some exquisite old pieces in stone, silver and wood, there are contemporary contributions. A standout is “Red” by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, a mural comprised of individual watercolors done in a powerful, graphic blend of Haida style and Japanese manga.
The fusion of influences is an important theme for the larger exhibition, too. Around 1917, Elizabeth Conrad Hickox used typical Karuk materials, including porcupine quills, and a form inspired by traditional basket hats. But Hickox was also inspired by the silver teapots that were new to her community in California and she benefitted from a developing collectors market.
Much of the beadwork featured in many pieces — from Ka’igwu moccasins to a Ute tobacco bag — used tiny glass seed beads from Venice, Italy, acquired through trade with Europeans.
The art demonstrates an adaptive insistence on creativity and beauty, even as it acknowledges disruptions in tradition. Atrocities were committed against many of these communities. Europeans violently appropriated land and imposed disease and cultural manipulation. Languages, skills and lives were lost.
In this exhibition, the innovations of the artists and the inclusion of contemporary work alongside older work are statements about the transformative nature of art. There is no boundary between old and new, between “pre-contact” and “post-contact” work. This art insists on an integrated, fluid view, a view that brings us back, again and again, to beauty.