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Seattle Art Museum's Contemporary Indigenous Art: How It Is Shown

At the beginning of July, I visited Seattle Art Museum (SAM) while my husband's teenage neice was staying with us for a week. I didn't linger much as much as I would have liked because I was the only "arty" one in the group. (Usually, I get the feeling that my husband is just indulging me by going to a museum with me, but I appreciate that he enjoys when we spend time together, even if it is looking at stuff he's generally not very passionate about.) It was a quick trip, but I did see a few things that pleasantly surprised me.

Sonny Assu's (Gwa'gwa'da'ka) Breakfast Series is back on display in the Native Galleries! I first saw this piece when it was shown as part of the 75th Anniversary Celebration for SAM (it was a gift in honor of that anniversary). If I recall correctly, it wasn't placed in the main Native galleries at that time, or with most of the other new acquisitions in the special exhibit galleries, but in the hallway off of the Native galleries that transition into other spaces. I do remember reading a comment by the artist that was published somewhere outside of the museum saying he felt his work didn't have to just be categorized as Native and that he would have preferred it to be included with the rest of the contemporary art.

I was happy to see this piece as I was really drawn to it when I first saw it (since contemporary Native art in Seattle barely exists). It hasn't been on display that I know of for at least several years. Having works like this helps bring a little more life and context to the Native galleries at SAM. I love all the objects, but sometimes I feel like they are a little too historical. There is (as I just alluded) very little contemporary Native art; most of the items displayed are 50 to 150 years old, or new interpretations of very traditional objects--such as Preston Singletary's (Tlingit) Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale), which is a really cool glass reference of a traditional wood-carved house screen.

It isn't that I don't have an appreciation for the traditional items, but when that is all that is shown, I always feel that the spaces end up coming across as more of "cabinets of curiosities" than of a gallery full of work from an actual, still-living group of people. This holds true for all the galleries in my opinion, not just the Native galleries. In art school, I remember writing a piece for an art history course about an object we really liked and what we would do with it. I imagined freeing an immense Dutch Kast (Cabinet) that I've loved seeing on display over the years at SAM and actually using it. While I love museums, I also often get the feeling that I am in some sort of "tomb" for the objects, depending on how they are displayed. There is a fine line between protecting things for future generations and allowing objects to have their own "lives."

One of the museums I've visited that I really felt did a great job of showing both the old and the new in terms of Native art was the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I was there a few years ago for work and had the chance to check out the museum. My mind was blown! Not only did they have beautiful traditional items on display, but there was also work by George Morrison, Wendy Red Star, and Julie Buffalohead. I'm supposed to be in Minneapolis for work again this September, so I'm really hoping I'll be able to steal some time and visit the museum again!

But, back to SAM--I think I had forgotten all about Marie Watt's Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Four Pelts, Sky Woman, Cousin Rose, and All My Relations. This was also a piece the museum gained (purchased) in honor of its 75th anniversary so I am pretty sure I had seen it on display in 2007, but it was likely up with the rest of the new acquisitions in the special exhibition galleries. I saw a really amazing solo show (Marie Watt: Lodge) of her work at the Tacoma Art Museum sometime in the past few years so I was happy to see this piece on display in the Native galleries. Again, it is a welcome addition that breathes a little more life into the rest of the pieces on display, at least for me.

Interestingly, the SAM website does not list Watt's tribal affiliation (Iroquois/Haudenosaunee). I don't recall if it was shown on the accompanying wall text, but it makes me wonder if it is just an oversight or if it is because Watt is not formally enrolled as a tribal member?

It doesn't matter to me whether she is enrolled or not, but if it is an oversight, it also brings to mind a Karuk basket I saw on display in the museum a year or two ago that was labelled as "Karok." I know that was a common spelling in the past, but it seemed strange to me that they wouldn't have updated their spelling to what the tribe is actually using in the current era. It just seemed like another way of reinforcing the notion that Native cultures (in this case my own) are from a distant past. This type of inconsistency is a small thing, but I always notice it, especially since these big institutional museums wield a lot of power over how the public interprets and gains understandings of different cultures.

As happy as I was to see works by Sonny Assu and Marie Watt on display, the piece that surprised me the most was Brian Jungen's The Mom Call. Firstly, because I didn't know that SAM had acquired this piece in 2014, and secondly, because it was shown in the Contemporary Art galleries. I was first exposed to Jungen's work from a visit I made to The National Museum of the American Indian where I saw a solo exhibit (Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort) he had there. It was an amazing display of contemporary First Nations work. There were totem poles made from golf bags, masks made out of sneakers, and plastic chairs turned into a whale skeleton. And, of course, I overheard some non-Native museum visitors remarking how this particular exhibit didn't fit in with the rest of the museum. Which, to me, was exactly why it was important to have it there--it was an example that we haven't all died out and there are still new forms of Indigenous art being created to this day.

Here, Jungen has made a drum out of an iconic chair designed by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. Also, the accompanying text (which I photographed while I was there for later reference and matches up with the text on SAM's website) just refers to him as "Canadian." It does acknowledge his First Nations ancestry in the curator's comments: "Created with the help and communal knowledge of his extended family from his mother’s Dane-zaa Nation in British Columbia, the work is in part a search for identities, both personal and artistic..." Since Jungen is Canadian and this was a gift to SAM from the "Contemporary Collectors Forum" the museum may be specifically choosing to whitewash Jungen's Indigenous ancestry and allow his work to be shown in the Contemporary Art galleries. I don't know. Feels a little odd to me as it appears to, once again, be one of those inconsistencies; but, I'm happy that his work is here in Seattle and on display!

Lastly, the current special exhibit on display is Disguise: Masks and Global African Art. This is one that I'm definitely going to have to go back and look at again, as there is a LOT to see. I only took one photo as I quickly realized that I would need more time with these works on my own, so I left my camera phone in my pocket and just tried to absorb what I could. But I loved these deer!

They are the work of Brendan Fernandes and the installation of life-size decoy deer wearing masks is titled Neo Primitivism 2. Fernandes is an artist who is Canadian and of Kenyan and Indian descent. Again, I would point out the difference in context for how a viewer experiences artwork by two Canadian artists of mixed ethnicity, both of whom have created work influenced by their ethnic makeup. In Jungen's case, his work joins the pantheon of other (mostly) white male artists in the Contemporary galleries. Fernandes' work, which could also look quite at home in the Contemporary galleries, instead becomes part of a much larger story by being included in an exhibit of art curated specifically because of the ethnic makeup of the artists shown.

Wihout going into detail, I also should mention that SAM usually has a gallery devoted to aboriginal art from Australia the South Pacific, as well as galleries (and a whole other museum) showing their extensive holdings of art from Asia. The thing that strikes me about what has been their typically traditional-focused exhibitons of Native art in the galleries, is that when you transition into the Australian aboriginal art, you walk from a space filled with traditional art of the Americas into a space filled with modern/contemporary work from Australia. I realize that this is partly dictated by the depth of the museum's own collections, but it seems odd that they have made a concerted effort to acquire and display modern Indigenous works from another continent without showing the same type of motivation for Indigenous artists of the United States (with the exception of Preston Singletary, they have at least three of his pieces; but then, he is a Seattle-based artist). Also, no mention of the Aboriginal art collection at SAM should go without acknowledging one of my favorite works of art in the entire collection: Emily Kam Kngwarray's Anooralya (Wild Yam Dreaming). It is lovely.

I've seen a really great special exhibition (S'abadeb: The Gifts) of Native Coast Salish work at SAM before, so I know they have the ability to pull it off. Unfortunately, I did not make it to the most recent show earlier this year (Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of Indigenous Art from the Diker Collection) so I can't comment on how successful that was. While I'm sad I missed seeing those objects while they were here, I admit that I feel a little uneasy about the title which, while completely true, still seems to emphasize the collectors themselves over the collection. I don't know how I would word it differently, but again, there is an unspoken emphasis on the power of the collector and the institution over the objects being shown.

Overall, I'm heartened by the fact that there is a little more contemporary Native art on display at SAM! And, while I may sound overly critical here at times, please know that I still support and enjoy visiting Seattle Art Museum and truly appreciate what they do. There are a multitude of ways to approach the topic of Indigenous art in museums. While I do have strong feelings about the subject, my perspective is one out of a wide array of voices.

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