Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired


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Last week I attended a Native Networking Night event hosted by Potlatch Fund (with generous support from Sealaska Corporation) at the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. I'd been meaning to actually attend one of these events for the past year, and this time it was held up the hill from my workplace so I had absolutely no excuse to miss it. So glad I went too! In addition to seeing some folks I know and meeting great new people, I also got to see the exhibit "Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired."

The Burke is really the one museum in Washington State that holds an outstanding collection of ethnographic items. I'm even lucky enough to have a couple of my monotype prints in their collection that were purchased at Potlatch Fund events and donated by current and former Burke employees! It is also the location that houses the remains of Kennewick Man (aka The Ancient One) as a suitable and neutral entity.

Anyhow, this exhibit focused on showing work by artists who have conducted research in the museum collections through grant programs over the past ten years. What I loved, was that they showed the contemporary works alongside the historical items that inspired the artist. Seeing these newer objects alongside the old gave them so much more context and really emphasized the fact that Native cultures are alive and evolving. I think we're all used to seeing a more typical museum display where objects are presented in sterile surroundings and lose a lot of their meaning and "life." This exhibit certainly still was in a museum setting, but it didn't feel as stifling. Perhaps it was just seeing the clear relationships that existed between the pieces.

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I was happy to see work by Sonny Assu (Ligwilda'xs of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nations). My first exposure to his artwork was seeing his set of Cereal Boxes on display at the Seattle Art Museum. I also learned something new! The traditional design boards were made by men, and then used by women to create woven items. For whatever reason, I had thought of these as standalone pieces and didn't realize they had an intended use.

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These salmon skin boots (shown next to a traditional salmon skin bag) were really breathtaking. Artist Joel Isaak (Kenaitze) made them as a set and considers them to be husband and wife, two equals that make up a pair. You can see the faces in them, they are quite fascinating and sort of ghostlike.

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Lou-ann Ika'wega Neel (Kwakwaka’wakw Nation) made a blanket shown here with the one that inspired her own. The text talked about how she knew exactly how difficult it was to shape and drill holes in the pieces of copper used to embellish these items. The weight of the original piece spoke to her about the wealth that it symbolized. I also loved her quote on the wall, "Our ancestors' artistic process isn't that much different from our own. They worked with what they had, they innovated all the time, they weren't afraid of technology."

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And this pair of feast bowls were spectacular. David A. Boxley (Tsimshian) based his version of a bentwood dish off of the one on the right. They were so very similar, but as he says himself, the artist still puts his own spin on a piece by how he chooses to interpret the "rules" of the medium.

There were so many other wonderful items on display, and I didn't take pictures of everything. If you have a chance, the exhibit is up until July 27th. It also includes the transformation mask that was the inspiration for the Seattle Seahawks logo, which is on loan from a museum in Maine. It was great to see how other artists were inspired and gain some inspiration for myself.


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