Object of the Week: Feast Dish

Crafted out of wood, paint, and opercula shells, Calvin Hunt’s monster Feast Dish, is a testament to the importance of food, community, and potlatch culture to the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of British Columbia. Born in 1956, Calvin Hunt is known for his monumental sculptures and is a well-respected artist from the Kwagu’l band located in Fort Rupert. Hunt’s feast dish provides a remarkable contrast to the typical Kwakwaka’wakw dishes.

As many partake in Thanksgiving celebrations, it is pertinent to recognize the cultural significance of the potlatch for the First Nations, along with the impact of the Canadian potlatch ban that restricted Indigenous peoples from practicing their traditions for over sixty years, only officially ending in 1951. The word potlatch, in Kwak’wala means “to give.” Potlatching for the Kwakwaka’wakw continues to this day and has been practiced for as long as spoken and written history can remember.

Feast bowls are carefully carved and ornamented by their creators, specifically designed for their use at potlatches that will hold delicious foods such as eulachon fish oil, seal meat, cranberries, and cinquefoil roots. Hunt’s bowl, however, was crafted specifically for SAM to coincide with the Chiefly Feasts exhibition in 1994. The feast bowl is modeled after Sisiutl, a three-headed sea serpent from Kwakwaka’wakw mythology, who can change between human and animal, along with morphing into a self-propelling canoe whose owner must feed with seals. Operculum shells encircle the mouth of the bowl. In nature, these shells protect marine gastropods (snails) from predators along with preventing the gastropod from drying up if they are exposed to air. With these operculum shells adorning the mouth of Hunt’s bowl where feast food is placed, along with this piece having been created shortly after the potlatch ban was lifted, it can be inferred that these shells are protecting the sacred tradition of potlatching from predatory laws.

Today, and every day, is an occasion to give thanks to Indigenous communities.

Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish and the customary territories of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Peoples. As a cultural and educational institution, we honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future. We also acknowledge the urban Native peoples from many Nations who call Seattle their home.

– Kari Karsten, SAM Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Image: Lukwalil (feast dish), 1994, Calvin Hunt (Tlasutiwalis), Wood, paint, opercula shells, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 94.63 © Calvin Hunt.

My Favorite Things: Jeffrey Gibson

“I think many people may not know all of the stories behind these objects. They’re not just an image, they’re an object and they’re an object that’s been in use.”

– Jeffrey Gibson

Artist Jeffrey Gibson discusses the sculptural and metaphorical interest of this human-form neck ring used as a piece of dance regalia in Hamat’sa ceremony. Made from cedar and bark, this sculpture is installed hanging as it would be worn around the neck of a dancer. Consider the sound that it would make when activated by movement and the ceremony that it is part of the next time you visit SAM’s Native Art of the Americas galleries.

Artwork: “Bagwikala (Human Being Neck Ring)”, ca. 1910, Mungo Martin (Nakapankam), Kwakwaka’wakw, Kwagu’l, Fort Rupert, British Columbia, ca. 1884–1962, red cedar bark, yellow cedar, paint, human hair, 68 x 12 x 6 in. (172.72 x 30.48 x 15.24 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.241. Music: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Lukwalil (feast dish)

Artist Calvin Hunt has followed in the footsteps of his older brother, father, and grandfather, inheriting traditions from a family of accomplished carvers. He has carried on his family’s legacy admirably. Among his achievements he can count totem poles, masks, and canoes in several museum collections worldwide, and a 25-foot-long feast dish made around 1987 for the Great Hall of the Canadian Museum of History.

SAM’s Lukwalil (feast dish) measures roughly 1/5 the size but still creates a visual impact, its gaping mouth threatening to swallow up anything in its path. Hunt carved this feast dish from wood, colored it with earth-tone pigments in green, red, and black hues, and adorned it with opercula shells. The operculum—I learned—is the disk on the foot of gastropods that acts like a trap door, allowing them to close up in self-defense against predators. Repurposed in fine art, the pearly shells are natural bling on this wooden serving dish.

SAM acquired the Lukwalil with the goal of demonstrating the persistence of cultural traditions among living artists—still, and maybe increasingly, important to the museum’s mission today. Expanding the collection with a feast dish allowed SAM to better illustrate an important part of the potlatch: feeding guests, abundantly, in style.

Hunt is a member of the Kwagu’l, a Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast from central British Columbia, on northern Vancouver Island. SAM commissioned Hunt to produce this Lukwalil in conjunction with the exhibition Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch—an homage to the significance and persistence of this tradition among Hunt’s people:

The Kwakiutl held tenaciously to their potlatch . . . The Canadian government, while sometimes misdirected, had its reasons for the law. The potlatching Kwakiutl, even when subjected to an increasingly authoritarian paternalism, were convinced that nothing was wrong with the potlatch and that the law was mistaken. Exploiting the government’s weaknesses, they were able to thwart the law at least as often as it thwarted their potlatches. They remained significant participants in their own destiny. Except for a brief period between 1919 and 1927, the Kwakiutl did with their potlatches pretty much what they wanted to do.1

On Vancouver Island, and all over the Canadian provinces, many will be celebrating this weekend on July 1. Canada Day commemorates the formation of Canada from the original provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec, a result of the British North America Act, passed by British Parliament on July 1, 1867. This year holds special significance as it marks Canada’s 150th anniversary.

Some Indigenous people in Canada are responding to Canada Day with demonstrations of “reoccupation,” a reminder that such celebrations take up a European perspective and carry the taint of colonization. Come see the Lukwalil and the rest of SAM’s exceptional Native American collection to give honor to, and open up conversations with, enduring Native traditions.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Lukwalil (feast dish), 1994, Calvin Hunt (Tlasutiwalis; Kwakwaka’wakw, Kwagu’l band, b. 1956), wood, paint, opercula shells, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 94.63
1 Douglas Cole, “The History of the Potlatch,” in Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch, Exh. Cat., Seattle and New York: University of Washington Press and the American Museum of Natural History, 1991; 135.
SAMBlog