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In Search of Native Art at Seattle Art Fair

Ahhh, the inaugural Seattle Art Fair! I didn't even realize the scope of what was happening until I was there at the opening night event. Our work received a few VIP passes from a local magazine and so a couple of coworkers and my best friend and I wandered down to the Century Link Event Center on Thursday night to check it out. Once I saw the crowd and some of the initial art, I realized that Seattle was really trying to create a northwest version of the many popular art fairs/festivals/exhibitions that happen internationally (Venice Biennale, New York Armory Show, Art Basel, etc).

Of course, I went with the goal of specifically seeing what sort of contemporary Native art was on view. The first Native art I spotted was a booth by Donald Ellis Gallery ("The internationally pre-eminent dealer in the field of antique North American Indian art, has been servicing private collectors, corporations and museums since 1976".) which had a lot of great stuff, but it was, of course, ALL traditional Native art. As in, the type of Native art that the public is used to seeing presented as "authentically" Native. The image above shows a view of their booth/space.

They had a lot of ledger art that was fascinating to see. Really beautiful examples too.

And many objects too, such as this Tlingit "Raven Rattle." I had mixed feelings about this gallery's display. On the one hand, I was happy to see these beautiful items amidst all the hustle and bustle of the mostly modern and contemporary artworks. Yet I also always feel like these accumulations of traditional Native art are usually controlled by non-Native people and serve as reminders to their collectors of Natives as a "vanished race." (They note on their website that they helped significantly in forming the "renowned Diker collection" which also just recently was on display at Seattle Art Museum.) I don't think anyone I saw manning their gallery space on either day I attended was Native, although I didn't ask specifically. But that was the first example I found.

The next Native artworks I came across were from artists and a gallery I am familiar with already. James Lavadour had a series of six panels shown here in my picture at PDX Contemporary Art's exhibit space. I don't recall the price exactly, but it was around $40,000 and had a sold sticker on it.

They also were showing Marie Watt with the above example hanging on a wall and a bronze blanket stack sculpture in front of it. Aaaaand, that was it! There may have been other works that I missed, but among the dealer/gallery booths, this is all I saw.

I ran into this artwork at Galerie Zürcher's space. For a hot second I thought maybe I had found a new contemporary Native artist that I wasn't familiar with! Alas, it was a piece done by Michael Dotson titled "The Wind Shift." He is a (white appearing) Brooklyn artist who has done a lot of work with Disney imagery. This one just happened to feature Disney's Pocahontas.

But that wasn't all! I ended up going back on Friday and discovered that there was a panel discussion planned for that afternoon titled "Here and Now: Postcolonial Stories from the Northwest." It was moderated by Catharina Manchanda, Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at Seattle Art Museum, and featuring artists Raymond Boisjoly, Wendy Red Star, and Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.

Image above is what was used to market the panel discussion on the website and is by Raymond Boisjoly (Haida) titled, "As It Comes," 2013. Interestingly, I ran across an article in The Stranger titled, "Why the Artist Raymond Boisjoly Decided Against Seattle (It's Not What You Think)" where he said he turned down a lucrative offer by the University of Washington's School of Art to stay in Vancouver at Emily Carr University because of "blood and tradition." He had interesting things to say on the panel and I was really intrigued by his use of text in his artwork. I wasn't familiar with his work previously, so you could say that I did find at least one contemporary Native artist at the fair that was new to me!

Wendy Red Star (Crow) was not only a member of the panel, but also had a commissioned installation up at Volunteer Park through the weekend titled, "Tableaux Vivant: Nature's Playground." This image is also from the official Seattle Art Fair website that Red Star herself took. It features her daughter and dog along with some of the hunting decoys that were positioned around the park. I found it interesting that this was part of the fair given that there are also hunting decoys at Seattle Art Museum right now as part of the "Disguise" special exhibit that I wrote a little about recently. Red Star spoke of using the hunting decoys in a public park to attract humans to interact with them, which I thought was an interesting take. Also, it was apparently successful as I've seen a few selfies of folks with the plastic animals. I didn't make it up to the park to see it in person unfortunately.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (Haida) was the third panelist and definitely the most vocal of the group. In addition to his artwork, he also has spent decades as an environmental activist and was clearly quite passionate about that work too. He too had work shown off-site as part of the fair. Selected pieces of his "RED: A Haida Manga" were shown on local billboards, which, again, I did not happen to run across this past weekend. The part of his work that I found most interesting was his talk of how he was interested in "the spaces between." He felt that the typical grid pattern of comics seemed very Western and colonial, which he had then layered with more organic Haida linework to create new spaces in which the story/artwork could exist. I was already somewhat familiar with his work as we both had art in the same show "Ethnographic Terminalia New Orleans" in 2010.

The moderator is a curator at SAM, and I didn't feel like she really had as much control over the discussion as she could have. Also, it was interesting to hear her comment that she realized her original title likely should not have included "Postcolonial" as, after initial discussions with the artists, this term was not really true to the Native experience in the northwest. I liked the artists chosen, but I also have to wonder why there were no artists from Seattle? It seemed strange to have one who is Portland-based and two from Vancouver, B.C., but no presence in the art fair's hometown. (Note: there was also an adjacent exhibition nearby called "Out of Sight" at King Street Station where 100 Northwest artists were showing their work in conjunction with, but separately from, Seattle Art Fair. I did not make it to this exhibit, so there could have been more artists and works of interest I missed.)

The power structures in place that support this high priced commerce in the art world is rather disturbing. I saw so many works with prices that were in the tens of thousands of dollars, and I think that often the public may assume that all artists either command these types of prices or are "starving." There is little room in between these high and low boundaries for artists to exist as regular citizens, or at least there are few examples held up as role models. The panel continued this pattern (of course) as it was moderated by a high profile curator and the artists were all introduced based on their past institutional successes.

Overall, I was excited to see so much wonderful art and was happy to see so many in the city come out to view and support this event. I wished that there had been a more noticeable presence of contemporary Native/Indigenous artwork, but at least there was some. And the panel was a great start to opening up discussion around this in Seattle. This city can use it!

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