Representation is a common concern for museum professionals. How, as an institution, do we represent the people and places we are talking about with respect and dignity? How do we work on displaying a diversity of opinions, backgrounds, and perspectives? They aren't simple issues to tackle, but we try. And when we do a good job, we are reminded of why it is so important.
First Thursday this month found me downtown at the Seattle Art Museum. Their Indigenous Beauty exhibit closes May 17th and I wanted to have a chance to see it before it goes. As per usual, SAM was a general delight; full of people and buzzing with conversation. First Thursday tends to be a very popular day for visitors, especially groups of folks looking for a week night activity. SAM also stays open until 9 pm on Thursdays, so there isn't a feeling of being rushed as you meander through the galleries. If you haven't stopped by, you really should.
I was drawn to this particular exhibit because it dealt with diversity, something with which art museums sometimes struggle. But it wasn't just art, it was also looking at the clothing, tools, and cultural objects of Native Americans. Talking about this group of people has a checkered past. They are often, even now, whittled down to a stereotype and it always saddens me when museums miss out on the point of it all. The point is to show what is really there, not simply what appears to be. These are modern, diverse people; not one homogeneous group. And so, I was skeptical. I worried that this exhibit, like so many others, would exoticize the many tribes of North America instead of treating them like real, living people.
The exhibit is broken up into regional groupings. Things like Northwest, Plains, Eastern Woodlands, et cetera. Already off to a good start. Each region highlights the traditional artistic style of the tribes who live there. Labels include time period, tribal affiliation, and material components for comparison. I was pleased to note that the dates on these labels ranges from several thousands of years old to the past decade. Finally! Some modern Native American art alongside the totem poles and beaded shirts! (Although those are lovely as well)
As I passed from one region into the next, I was pleased to see the variety of objects displayed. Dolls, clothing, bowls, pipes, and more. Objects made of leather, wood, ivory, tin, glass, and shell. The art of North America is also a sort of tapestry of the resources found throughout our continent. It's fascinating to see how each region utilizes the materials available to them. It was also easy to note when certain groups encountered Europeans by their incorporation of western glass, motifs, and metal into their art.
Perhaps someday these pieces will be included in an exhibit simply entitled "Beauty"; maybe one day Native artists can be appreciated with no caveats. It is a delicate line to tread. Museums should not remove cultural objects from their context, but at the same time I feel it is important that we move away from White-European art as true art. Non-white art should be appreciated without any modifiers. Until then, the least we can do is treat each of these tribes as individual. Recognize that the term "Native American" encompasses hundreds of unique groups of people.
I do have a few nit-picky things about the exhibit that bothered me. First, there is a label (I won't say where) that is missing an opening parenthesis. I know, I know. I'm a little ridiculous when it comes to labels. It isn't a big deal for most people, but it stood out to me. Second, there are several mounts that seem obtusely out of place. For example, there are four beaded pouches in a case together. Two of the four are mounted on a modern and discreet clear plastic backing. The other two are attached to some sort of cloth covered mount. It wasn't so much the materials used as it was the dingy, dated look these cloth covered mounts had. To most it probably wouldn't matter. And perhaps there was some sort of conservation-based reason for it. I really don't know.
Overall, I enjoyed this exhibit. It was wonderful to see the art of regions outside my own. In Seattle, we are surrounded by the Native art of the Northwest. Seeing the Katsina dolls of the Southwest Hopi and Zuni Pueblos was a real treat! If you have time before Sunday to go out and see this one. Great job, as per usual, SAM!
(This exhibit was organized by the American Federation of Arts)