#SAMSnippets: Native Art and Life Along the Northwest Coast

Introducing #SAMSnippets! We recently launched a new live series on our Instagram which gives followers an in-depth look at works from SAM’s permanent and semi-permanent installations virtually. Each month, we’ll choose a new gallery to walk viewers through, providing a taste of SAM from wherever you may be!

To kick off the series this November, we featured a diverse collection of artworks from “Native Art and Life Along the Northwest Coast” in celebration of National Native American Heritage Month. Watch the video now to get a peek at what’s on view at SAM now and read about the works shown in this video below. Visit SAM now to see all of the featured works and more in-person!

Masks Right to Left: Deer Mask, Owl Mask, Wolf Mask, Bukwus Mask (Wild Man of the Woods), Raccoon Mask, Cod Fish Mask, Mouse Woman Mask, Grizzly Bear Mask, Bukwus Mask (Wild Man of the Woods), Kingfisher Mask, Porcupine Mask, Otter Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Gifts of the Pacific Science Center. Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Masks of the Animal Kingdom Dance

As we enter the galleries on this short walkthrough you’ll see an installation of masks arranged on platform. Performances featuring masked dancers are birthright of particular families and derive from long-ago auspicious encounters between human ancestors and supernatural beings, in the guise of animals or unique spirits. The “Dance of the Animal Kingdom” represents a heroine ancestor’s adventures among the animal beings, who in turn bestow the dance and masks upon her for use by her family and subsequent generations.

According to Chief Bill Scow (1902–1984), the Animal Kingdom story took place at Shoal Harbor (Gilford Island, British Columbia) where in the distant past a girl went looking in the woods for her lost brother. She instead encountered a dance of animal beings inside a cave. The messenger of the animals, Mouse Woman, was sent to see if there was indeed an intruder. Because the girl was able to overcome the supernatural power present in the animal dance, she was allowed to witness it and to bring to her people the privilege of performing it. The masks shown here were carved by artist Sam Johnson (1930–2007) for the opening ceremonies of the Seamonster House at the Pacific Science Center in 1971.

Mouse Woman Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, enamel paint, cotton cloth, and leather, 11 x 9 1/2 x 9 in. (27.94 x 24.13 x 22.86 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.8.

As we pan across the arrangement, keep an eye out for Deer, the “curious one,” recognizable by its antlers. You’ll also see Owl, called the “Wise One” perhaps because its large eyes see deeply into the real and spirit worlds. Its distinctive markings, rotating head and binocular vision, put the owl in the pantheon of auspicious creatures. George Hunt (1854–1933), a knowledgeable First Nations consultant to anthropologist Franz Boas, recorded that some Kwakwaka’wakw believed that after death man becomes an owl.

According to Bill Scow, one of the heirs of the Animal Kingdom privilege, Wolf was the leader of the animals and would call them out one-by-one to pantomime the characteristics of each creature. After all the animals had danced in sequence, they would dance together as a group for the finale.

Raccoon, as keeper of the fire, would have been in charge of illuminating the sacred cave where the Animal Kingdom Dance first took place.

Because of her speed and sharp mind, Mouse Woman is sent out to make sure no one is watching the secret dance of the animals. In the story, she befriends the girl and tells the others that no one is watching. In time, the girl is allowed to observe and to take the supernatural treasure of the dance and masks back to her family.

Grizzly Bear is the “fierce one” and can be identified by his upright ears, large snout, and moveable jaw.

The presence of Bukwus in the Animal Kingdom Dance may be a reference to the lost brother that the girl was seeking. Bukwus are feared ghost-like creatures believed to represent humans who have become separated from their community and wander the woods. In the story, the brother loses his human identity and becomes a Bukwus.

Kingfisher is said to be the assistant to Wolf, the leader of the animals. In the wild, they are stocky birds with a shaggy blue crest who fly quickly over rivers and shorelines looking for fish. Their rattling cry and expert diving abilities make them special and mysterious creatures.

Seated Human Figure Bowl, pre-1800, Coast Salish, Soapstone, 14 3/4 x 4 5/16 x 7 5/16 in. (37.5 x 11 x 18.5 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.223.

Now we turn to historic and contemporary works created by Native peoples across the Northwest Coast. The first work in this collection, Seated Human Figure Bowl, portrays a skeletal humanoid figure cradling a bowl in its lap, with its arms and legs encircling the bowl. Three distinct snake images are carved downward from the head, resembling a headdress with two footprints on top. Bowls such as these, carved from stone, wood, and horn, are often used by Coast Salish peoples in rituals of healing and protection.

Next to the bowl sits a Sxwaixwe Carving. The unusual being depicted in this carving is used in Coast Salish communities to bless and protect people in life crisis events, such as sickness and death. Only the right person with the right to use the masks would know its deeper meanings. This small carving might have once been the finial of a rattle or the top of a staff.

Skull Rattles (Xawikw Yadan), ca. 1890, Kwakwaka’wakw, Alder wood, red cedar bark, paint, Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.86.1.

Also in this collection, we see two Skull Rattles. The imagery of these two works reveals the death-and-rebirth aspect of initiation into the t’seka or Winter Ceremonial whereby acolytes are temporarily imbued with supernatural power then restored by attendants who shake rattles to tame the wild behavior of the initiate. The subdued initiate is reborn with greater status and connection to spiritual power.

Halibut—giant flatfish that can weigh one hundred pounds or more—were traditionally caught in Tlingit and Kaigani Haida communities from cedar canoes using special barbed hooks. Fishermen used imagery that referenced the help of a shaman. This Halibut Hook (Naxw) which is then panned to represents a human figure with animal-like feet biting an octopus tentacle. The octopus appears frequently on shaman charms and is considered to be a supernaturally powerful being.

The importance of shamans, called halait, as powerful spirits which aid in combatting sickness and soul loss in Native communities along the Northwest is reiterated in the next work featured in the video, Soul Catcher (Am’halait). This special amulet of bone, abalone shell, and buckskin is a container that was manipulated while the shaman was in a trance, in order to locate and retrieve the wandering or bewitched soul of a person, thus restoring their health.

Small carved shaman figures such as the one which is next panned to, represent spirit helpers and were part of the myriad curing paraphernalia employed to purge ill persons of evil spirits. Objects such as these would protect the shaman against supernatural enemies while completing his healing duties.

Xoots Kudás (Bear Shirt), ca. 1890, Tlingit, Tekweidí clan, Commercial wool cloth, cotton cloth, imported mother-of-pearl buttons, applique, synthetic indigo dye, 41.5 x 57 in. (101.6 x 144.78 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.80.

To the right of this shaman figure, we see a venerable ceremonial garment. Xoots Kudás displays a bear on one side and a stylized design of bull kelp on the other, both crests of the Tlingit clan. The crests are held communally and symbolize ancestral encounters with supernatural beings. Such regalia is considered to be at.óow (“an owned or purchased object acquired through an ancestor”), one of many traditional art works brought out on ceremonial occasions to signify the connection between the ancestors and the living.

Leaving the glass case of Northwest Native works, we pan to two pedestals with works highlighting the importance of Raven in Tlingit communities. The first, Raven at the Headwaters of Nass Hat (Naas shagi Yeil S’aaxw) was used in Alaska to comfort those in mourning. Clan hats are the ultimate expression of complex shared histories and are featured prominently in potlatches. When the song associated with the hat was sung, the host family and guests—ritually dressed in headgear and robes—would dance in remembrance of their loved ones.

The second work is a stunning combination of maple, mirror, abalone shell, bird skin, paint, sea lion whiskers, copper, leather, and Flicker feathers. According to myth, the distinguished natural features of Tlingit homelands can be attributed to Raven. Lkaayaak Yeil S’aaxw (Box of Daylight Raven Hat) depicts the wily Raven in the act of releasing the sun, moon, and stars from his grandfather’s box, which the legendary bird clutches in his human-like hands.

Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale), Preston Singletary, ca. 2003, American, Tlingit, born 1963, Fused and sand carved glass, 72 x 92 x 3/8 in. (182.9 x 233.7 x 1cm), Purchased in honor of John H. Hauberg with funds from the Mark Tobey Estate Fund, John and Joyce Price, the Native American Art Support Fund, Don W. Axworthy, Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Marshall Hatch, C. Calvert Knudsen, Christine and Assen Nicolov, Charles and Gayle Pancerzewski, Sam and Gladys Rubinstein, SAM Docents, SAMS Supporters, Frederick and Susan Titcomb, and Virginia and Bagley Wright, 2003.12.

Behind these pedestals, we see Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale) by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary. Growing up in west coast cities and trained in European glass techniques and practice, Singletary began incorporating Native Iconography into his work in 1987, explaining: “I found a source of strength and power [in Tlingit designs] that brought me back to my family, society, and cultural roots.” In this, his first monumental work, the artist studied the house screen in this gallery, fusing his clan Killer Whale crest into sixteen panels, thus recharging an ancient tradition and bringing the past forward. Learn more about this artwork featured in SAM’s Object of the Week series.

Canoe Breaker: Southeast Wind’s Brother, Robert Davidson, ca. 2010, Canadian, Haida, Masset Village, born 1946, Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 40 in. (152.4 × 101.6cm), Gift of The MacRae Foundation, the Native Arts of the Americas and Oceania Council, and Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2013.35.

The tour concludes with Robert Davidson’s Canoe Breaker: Southeast Wind’s Brother. According to Haida oral traditions, Canoe Breaker is one of ten brothers of Southeast Wind, who is responsible for the turbulent weather on Haida Gwaii. You can learn more about the story behind Canoe Breaker in this highlight as SAM’s Object of the Week.

“Southeast Wind is in the form of a killer whale. The [white] ovoid actually separates the lower teeth from the upper teeth in the mouth. And the top shape would be the tail and this U-shape could be the pectoral fin and dorsal fin. When you see the killer whale in their world we see them as killer whales but when…they go into their dwelling [below the sea] they will take off their skins and hang it near the door..so that’s why…human attributes [are] mixed in with what a killer whale looks like.”

– Robert Davidson

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Video Artworks: Deer Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, antler, paint, cloth, 14 1/2 x 9 1/2 x 9 3/4 in. (36.83 x 24.13 x 24.77 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.7. Owl Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Wood with enamel paint, 12 x 9 1/2 x 10 in. (30.48 x 24.13 x 25.4 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.5. Wolf Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, enamel paint, and cloth, 8 x 8 1/8 in. (20.32 x 20.64 cm) L.: 20 3/4 in., Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.10. Bukwus Mask (Wild Man of the Woods), Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, Overall: 12 x 11 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. (30.5 x 29.2 x 21.6cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.12. Raccoon Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, enamel paint, and cotton cloth, 12 1/2 x 9 x 9 13/16 in. (31.75 x 22.86 x 24.96 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.9. Cod Fish Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, 12 3/4 x 9 1/8 x 9 1/2 in. (32.39 x 23.18 x 24.13 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.1. Mouse Woman Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, enamel paint, cotton cloth, and leather, 11 x 9 1/2 x 9 in. (27.94 x 24.13 x 22.86 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.8. Grizzly Bear Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, 9 1/8 x 8 in. (23.18 x 20.32 cm) L.: 15 3/4 in., Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.6. Bukwus Mask (Wild Man of the Woods), Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, 12 x 9 1/4 in. (30.48 x 23.5 cm) , Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.2. Kingfisher Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, 8 1/4 x 9 in. (20.96 x 22.86 cm) L.: 11 in., Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.4. Porcupine Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, 11 1/4 x 9 11/16 x 10 in. (28.58 x 24.57 x 25.4 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.3. Otter Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, Overall: 6 1/2 x 8in. (16.5 x 20.3cm) Length: 16in. (40.6cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.11. Seated Human Figure Bowl, pre-1800, Coast Salish, Soapstone, 14 3/4 x 4 5/16 x 7 5/16 in. (37.5 x 11 x 18.5 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.223. Stone Mortar, pre-1800, Salish, Granite, 10 x 5 3/4 x 4 3/4 in. (25.4 x 14.61 x 12.07 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.136. Eagle and Salmon, Manuel Salazar, 2007, Canadian, Cowichan, born 1966, Deer hide, acrylic paint, Diam.: 20in. (50.8cm), Gift of Doug and Thelma McTavish, 2008.49. Sxwaixwe Carving, ca. 1880, Coast Salish, Wood, Mountain goat horn, mountain sheep horn, cow horn, copper, 5 1/2 x 2 in. (13.97 x 5.08 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.140. Drum with Skull Painting, Susan Point, 1991, Musqueam, Canadian, Born 1951, Animal hide, acrylic, wood, bone, 17 x 3 in. (43.2 x 7.6 cm), Gift of Simon Ottenberg, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, SC2005.13. Halibut Hook (Naxw), ca. 1890, Tlingit or Kaigani Haida, Yew wood, yellow cedar, iron, cedar bark twine, and commercial cotton twine, 4 5/8 x 1 3/8 in. (11.75 x 3.49 cm) L.: 9 1/2 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.105. Soul Catcher (Am’halait), ca. 1860, Tsimshian, Bone, abalone shell, and buckskin, 1 5/8 x 1 1/8 in. (4.13 x 2.86 cm) L.: 7 3/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.83. Shaman Figure, ca. 1860, Tlingit, collected in Sitka in 1869, Yellow cedar wood, human hair, and paint, 14 5/8 x 4 x 3 in. (37.15 x 10.16 x 7.62 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.119. Xoots Kudás (Bear Shirt), ca. 1890, Tlingit, Tekweidí clan, Commercial wool cloth, cotton cloth, imported mother-of-pearl buttons, applique, synthetic indigo dye, 41.5 x 57 in. (101.6 x 144.78 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.80. Raven at the Headwaters of Nass Hat (Naas shagi Yeil S’aaxw), ca. 1810, Tlingit, Taku village, Alaska, Gaanax.ádi clan, Maple, paint, shell, hair, baleen, 8 1/2 x 7 x 12 in. (21.59 x 17.78 x 30.48 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.125. Lkaayaak Yeil S’aaxw (Box of Daylight Raven Hat), ca. 1850, Tlingit, Taku village, Alaska, Gaanax.ádi clan, Maple, mirror, abalone shell, bird skin, paint, sea lion whiskers, copper, leather, Flicker feathers, 11 7/8 x 7 3/4 x 12 1/4 in. (30.2 x 19.7 x 31.1 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.124. Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale), Preston Singletary, ca. 2003, American, Tlingit, born 1963, Fused and sand carved glass, 72 x 92 x 3/8 in. (182.9 x 233.7 x 1cm), Purchased in honor of John H. Hauberg with funds from the Mark Tobey Estate Fund, John and Joyce Price, the Native American Art Support Fund, Don W. Axworthy, Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Marshall Hatch, C. Calvert Knudsen, Christine and Assen Nicolov, Charles and Gayle Pancerzewski, Sam and Gladys Rubinstein, SAM Docents, SAMS Supporters, Frederick and Susan Titcomb, and Virginia and Bagley Wright, 2003.12. Canoe Breaker: Southeast Wind’s Brother, Robert Davidson, ca. 2010, Canadian, Haida, Masset Village, born 1946, Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 40 in. (152.4 × 101.6cm), Gift of The MacRae Foundation, the Native Arts of the Americas and Oceania Council, and Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2013.35.

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.

Muse/News: Imogen’s Influence, Painting Last Meals, and Finding a Dürer

SAM News

Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective is now on view at SAM! Carrie Dedon, SAM’s Associate Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, spoke with KUOW’s Kim Malcolm about Cunningham’s life and work. And Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel on “how Seattle’s Imogen Cunningham changed photography forever.” She spoke with six local artists about Cunningham’s influence and legacy.

“Cunningham’s headstrong nature would come to define her long career as a fine arts photographer: She never hesitated to experiment, even if it meant sailing against the wind as a female photographer in a male-dominated industry.”

Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud for Variable West on “the boundless light of Black children” shining in Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence. Also: Check out the show’s accompanying book, featuring an essay by the artist.

“I want everybody to be a little bit off their rocker, a little bit shocked, a little bit dazzled, a little bit held. That’s what I get to do.” – Barbara Earl Thomas

Local News

“Why they give.” In the spirit of holiday giving, 425 Business checks in with local philanthropists about their charity practice. The Banks family is featured; Dr. Cherry A. Banks is a SAM trustee.

For Thanksgiving, Crosscut once again highlights the bounty of Native art on view in the area, including Duane Linklater: mymothersside at the Frye Art Museum, new public art at Climate Pledge Arena, film screenings, holiday markets, and much more.

“A painterly catalog of the death penalty in America”: The Seattle Times’ David Gutman on Julie Green’s The Last Supper, now on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum.

“You think you’re looking at something that’s very blasé and very familiar and comforting and then it’s something that really jolts you once you actually understand what you’re looking at,” said Lane Eagles, associate curator at the museum. “I think the idea is to sort of lull you into this sense of comfort so that you’re sort of disarmed and that that’s when the reality that every single plate is a dead person hits you.”

Inter/National News

From NPR: “Frida Kahlo’s Diego y yo, a painting of herself with her husband’s image on her forehead, sold for $34.9 million in a Sotheby’s auction… It’s the most money ever paid at auction for a work by a Latin American artist.” Speaking of: Don’t miss Imogen Cunningham’s portrait of Kahlo on view at SAM!

The New York Times reviews The Loft Generation, a memoir by artist Edith Schloss discovered after her death; she brings to life the mid-century New York scene, including Frisson artists such as Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.

One of Muse/News’ favorite genres: A man purchased a drawing at an estate sale for $30; it may be a Albrecht Dürer worth $50 million.

“On a lark, he bought it for $30. At the very least, it was ‘a wonderfully rendered piece of old art, which justified purchasing it,’ he recalled.

And Finally

The shaggy appeal of Kurt Vonnegut.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: L. Fried.

Object of the Week: Blanket Stories

Every blanket tells a story. From their weaving structure, hems, threads, and wear, one can uncover the many unspoken stories of both the blanket and its owners, past and present.

Marie Watt is an Indigenous artist from the Seneca Nation whose practice deliberates the intricacies of history, community, and storytelling. For Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Four Pelts, Sky Woman, Cousin Rose, and All My Relations, Watt collected blankets through an open call to the public, with some blankets coming from donations from her community. Some of the blankets have visible tags that state the owner’s name and story. These blankets hold the memories and stories of those who donated them, while simultaneously sharing personal connections, community history, and Iroquois creation stories. In the words of the artist:

“As I fold and stack blankets, they begin to form columns that, to me, hold many references: linen closets, architectural braces, memorials (e.g. the Trajan Column), sculpture (e.g. Brancusi), the great totem poles of the Northwest, and the giant conifers among which I grew up. In Native communities, blankets are given away to honor people for witnessing important life events, births, and comings-of-age, graduations and marriages, namings, and honorings. Among Native people it is as much of a privilege to give a blanket away as to receive one.”

– Marie Watt

Raised by her Seneca mother in the Pacific Northwest, Watt was taught the importance of the continuation and celebration of Indigenous culture. In Blanket Stories, she credits the Iroquois story of The Three Sisters, as one of the many sources of inspiration for this piece. The Three Sisters discusses the themes of home, community, and sharing. The three sisters, Corn, Beans, and Squash, spent their days in a field when, one day, they were visited by a young native boy. Curious about the boy, the sisters followed him home, one after the other. Discovering the warmth and comfort of the boy’s home—and because it was getting colder by the day—the sisters decided to stay and keep the dinner pot full for the boy and his family. The stack of blankets represents how the sisters rely on each other throughout the season to feed our people, highlighting the importance of food, family, and oral history within Indigenous heritage.

Living and working in the Northwest, Watt has stacked blankets so that they rise from floor to ceiling, reminiscent of the totems, or welcome figures, seen in this area of the United States. By visually and thematically connecting two vibrant Indigenous cultures from opposite coasts, Watt welcomes viewers and tells of how we are all connected through the stories that we share. Indigenous people look to the past for guidance from our ancestors, while also thinking towards future generations. These blanket stacks illustrate the histories that they hold, while also demonstrating the comfort and security that they have left to offer.

Every blanket has a story. What is yours?

– Kari Karsten, Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Image: Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Four Pelts, Sky Woman, Cousin Rose, and All My Relations, 2007, Marie Watt, Wool blankets, satin binding, with salvaged industrial yellow cedar timber base, 150 x 40 x 40 in., General Acquisition Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.41 © Marie Watt.

Flow with Keet Shagoon

Hear artist Preston Singletary talk about the imagery in his work and how he uses the medium of glass to reconnect and reinterpret traditional Tlingit art and culture.

In addition to being a visual artist, Preston Singletary is a musician and member of Khu.éex’, an Indigenous band. The band focuses on bringing awareness to social issues affecting Indigenous communities and keeping tribal culture and endangered ancient languages alive through music, storytelling, and art.

Listen to a Khu.éex’ song. As you listen, think about the story being told through the song and how this might be visually represented in Keet Shagoon.

Excerpt from”Khu.éex’: the Magic of Noise” by Heartstone Studios.

Watch this clip of Singletary describing how his glass art flows like music.

Singletary was inspired by YéilX’eenh (RavenScreen), which hangs in SAM’s galleries across from Keet Shagoon. YéilX’eenh (Raven Screen) is an interior house screen like those that can be found in the clan houses of the Tlingit tribal community. These screens separate the chief’s quarters from the rest of the clan house. The small hole in the middle of the screen acts as a portal that is used by the chief to make dramatic entrances when entertaining guests or at potlatches. The imagery on the screen depicts a family crest—in this case, it depicts Raven.

How are these artworks similar? How are they different?
How are the materials the artists use different?
What could these continuities and departures tell us?

Formline by Steve Brown, courtesy of Sealaska Heritage.

Both Keet Shagoon and YéilX’eenh use formline design, a stylistic approach that serves as the foundation for designs by artists from central British Columbia to southeast Alaska. Objects like animals or people are depicted with one continuous outline, called a form line, and then filled with different shapes that represent anatomical details like eyes, wings and fins, thus creating positive and negative space within the delineated object.

Formline designs are typically made up of four basic shapes. See how many you can identify in both the contemporary artwork and the traditional artwork the next time you visit SAM.

Images: Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale), 2003, Preston Singletary. Fused and sand carved glass, 72 x 92 x 3/8 in., Purchased in honor of John H. Hauberg with funds from the Mark Tobey Estate Fund, John and Joyce Price, the Native American Art Support Fund, Don W. Axworthy, Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Marshall Hatch, C. Calvert Knudsen, Christine and Assen Nicolov, Charles and Gayle Pancerzewski, Sam and Gladys Rubinstein, SAM Docents, SAMS Supporters, Frederick and Susan Titcomb, and Virginia and Bagley Wright, 2003.12. © Preston Singletary. Yéil X’eenh (Raven Screen), ca. 1810, Native American, Kadyisdu.axch’, Tlingit, Kiks.adi clan. Spruce, paint, 105 3/4 x 129 in. Gift of John H. Hauberg, 79.98.

Object of the Week: K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper

I would like to acknowledge that the museum sits on the Indigenous land of the Coast Salish People in and around the city of dᶻidᶻəlalič (renamed Seattle for Chief siʔaɫ).

My work is a response to the ways in which photography has been used as a mechanism of colonization. Decolonizing photography for the use of American Indians has to occur through the articulation of a Native representational subjectivity. In the place of colonizing representation, I want to produce images and sensory experiences that convey representation of, by, and for American Indians.

– Will Wilson

Since 2012, Will Wilson has put cultural sovereignty at the root of image-making events he calls the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX). The thousands of images created over the course of this project now comprise the largest Indigenous created archive of images of Native peoples. These photo sessions—in which Wilson uses an old wet-plate technology to produce tintypes—are held in tribal communities and at urban institutions such as museums. Wilson’s CIPX event at the Seattle Art Museum, which took place in November 2017, centered on capturing the rich complexity of Native peoples living in the environs of Seattle, members of local reservation-based tribes, and “urban Indians” who came to Seattle from other places. Wilson invites anyone who wants to be photographed to present themselves however they want—wearing what they choose, holding objects that are important to them, and posing to their liking. As part of the exchange, he gives the tintype to the sitter while asking for permission to digitize the image for use in large-scale prints, like the work in SAM’s collection, K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper (Andy Everson). It is an amazing process to witness and reminds us that, for those who take authority over the processes of representation, methodologies and interpersonal exchanges matter.1

The sitter in this portrait is K’ómoks First Nation’s artist Andy Everson. His recent work draws from his two passions: Indigenous art and Star Wars. He transformed the stormtrooper into a positive figure by doing away with the uniform’s whiteness and covering it with formline designs. Everson wanted to change the stormtrooper from someone who blindly follows instructions from his higher-ups to someone who is able to take action for himself and for his own people. And so began this idea of the West Coast warrior, a defender of the land.2

Chilkat weavers were the inspiration for Everson when he created the Northern Warrior (2015), with its distinctive yellow, blue, white, and black colors. He also replaced the stormtrooper’s helmet with a traditional conical hat, made out of maple wood that his ancestors in Alaska would have worn.3 Many of his ancestors were warriors, and when their territory was threatened they did not hesitate to defend themselves. When they entered battle, they wore slatted armor suits and hard wooden helmets carved with their crest, proudly representing their ancestral lineage. The hat on this helmet displays the Kwakwaka’wakw crest of the sisiyutł—the double-headed serpent. This symbol of the warrior reminds us of the dichotomies in life—good and evil, right and wrong—and puts a human face in the middle to teach us that we must choose where we stand.4

Everson’s stormtroopers tell a story to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples about the importance of a warrior spirit. The works speak to the histories of Indigenous resistance and defiance in opposition to colonizing forces, and the importance of remaining steadfast in the face of adaptation and change.5 Like Wilson’s CIPX series, Everson’s stormtroopers draw people in with its familiar figure and invite people to engage with an art form, perhaps unfamiliar to some, that ultimately fosters a new kind of cultural exchange.

Speaking of stormtroopers, don’t miss the premiere of The Mandalorian season two on October 30. Will we find out Baby Yoda’s origin? Are there more of them? I hope so, and I hope you all have a safe and happy Halloween!

“I would like to see the baby.” – The Client, The Mandalorian

– Tina Lee, SAM Exhibitions and Publications Manager

Images: K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper (Andy Everson), Citizen of the K’ómoks First Nation, from the series Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange: dᶻidᶻəlalič, 2017, printed 2019, Will Wilson, archival pigment print
56 1/4 × 44 1/4 in., Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2019.26.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Northern Warrior, 2015, Andy Everson, edition 99, giclée, image source: andyeverson.com. Image courtesy of Pixabay.
[1] Brotherton, Barbara. “New Archives of Indigenous Self-Representation.” In Double Exposure: Edward S. Curtis, Marianne Nicolson, Tracy Rector, Will Wilson, 22–26. Seattle Art Museum, 2018.
[2] The Huffington Post B.C. “Andy Everson’s Stormtrooper Acts as Modern First Nations Warrior.” Accessed October 27, 2020, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/07/24/andy-everson-stormtrooper-first-nations_n_5618449.html
[3] Baluja, Tamara. “Star Wars characters get Indigenized by Comox First Nation artist.” Accessed October 27, 2020.https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/star-wars-indigenized-andy-everson-1.4463320
[4] Everson, Andy. “Northern Warrior.” Artwork by Andy Everson. Accessed October 27, 2020. http://www.andyeverson.com/2014/northern_warrior.html
[5] Avdeeff, Melissa. “Andy Everson: Resistance and Defiance in Indigenous Digital Art.” Accessed October 27, 2020. http://mediacommons.org/imr/content/andy-everson-resistance-and-defiance-indigenous-digital-art

Art is Not a Noun, It’s a Verb: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

“The real magic of Carpe Fin is in the space between the object and the observer.”

– Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Hear from the artist behind the 6 x 19–foot watercolor mural commissioned for SAM. Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas describes Carpe Fin as “Haida manga.” This unique approach developed by Yahgulanaas blends several artistic and cultural traditions, including Haida formline art, Japanese manga, Pop Art, and graphic novels.

Inspired by a traditional Haida oral story, the story is also linked to a 19th-century headdress in SAM’s collection carved by Yahgulanaas’s relative, Albert Edward Edenshaw. Carpe Fin calls attention to issues of environmental degradation and the rupture of the values that honor human-nature interdependence.

We asked SAM staff to reflect on the work and what stood out to them by answering which panel impacted them most. Have you seen the artwork at SAM or read the book? Read some reflections below and share your thoughts with us in the comments!

  • The very center panel—it’s more free form so it draws the eye. It’s the moment when Carpe realizes he’s been left behind on the island. His phases of expression and gesture really struck me.
  • The central panels—frames break down, creative topsy-turvy!
  • The third panel (upper center) for the transition from the human to the underwater world. The contrast of thick, thin, and detailed brushwork make it come alive.
  • The middle panels stand out because of the dynamic between the sea lions and humans. There’s a chaotic structure that reminds me of the circle of life, but it also shows an imbalance.
  • The central panel and how it just seems to come alive and break out of the typical comic book boxes/outlines; the overall image captivates your attention and makes you want to keep looking at the intricate, smaller details.
  • I was most impacted by the panel in which Carpe swims back wearing sewed-up seal skin. There is something about embodying the animal that he had been killing. I wonder how much the message of “you’re killing our women” would have sunk in without this physical experience or if he would have heard it in a different way?
  • I’m most impacted by the panel where the young boys kill a flicker. This senseless, purposeless killing of a living thing in a microcosm of the imbalance and lack of respect for the environment that has created dire circumstances for this community and communities across the globe. The energy that youth are bringing to climate activism lies in contrast to this detail and gives hope for the future. We all need to take responsibility and enact laws and regulations that will ensure the survival of future generations.
  • All of them together

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today!

Images: Carpe Fin (details), 2018, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Haida, b. 1954, watercolor and ink on handmade Japanese paper, 6.5 x 19.7 ft., Seattle Art Museum, Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, McRae Foundation and Karen Jones, 2018.30, © Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.

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.

SAM Connects with Artist-in-Residence Kimberly Deriana

Your next chance to experience the Olympic Sculpture Park through the Indigenous lens of SAM’s winter resident is tonight, February 27 from 7 to 9 pm! Architectural designer and artist Kimberly Deriana (Mandan/Hidatsa) has spent the last two months working in the park researching, offering workshops, and constructing a temporary installation. Deriana has used her residency as a space for sharing Indigenous knowledge surrounding the many uses of cattail materials. The temporary cattail and cedar structure she has created is a space where everyone is invited to gather and experience cultural celebration. The event will include performances by Aiyanna Jade Stitt and Hailey Tayathy, and storytelling and song by Kayla Guyett and Paige Pettibon.

Kimberly Deriana specializes in sustainable, environmental Indigenous architecture, housing, and planning. Deriana’s methodologies focus on incorporating Indigenous lifestyle practices in relation to past, present, and future, designing for the 7 generations. We sat down with her to learn a little more about her experience as SAM’s artist in residence and to learn more about her creative process.

SAM: What goals do you have for your residency at the Olympic Sculpture Park? 

KIMBERLY DERIANA: I want to activate the park through an Indigenous lens. As an architect designer and somebody who loves urban design, I’ve been drawn to this park since I first moved here. Part of creating visibility is bringing other people along in the process and giving them opportunities, too. I really try to include people and families who have been doing this work for years while giving new urban Native people outlets in every project on which I work.

This residency is a learning opportunity for me; the way I enjoy learning is to involve others. It’s about the way we learn as a community, the way we make as a community, and the way we approach being in the world and sustainability. When you’re gathering cattails, there’s an appropriate time to gather and there are appropriate places to gather. Learning all of that protocol has been really eye-opening. Because I grew up as an urban Native and wasn’t always shown those protocols, I try to make a conscious effort to create space and time for the protocol knowledge as an adult.

Tell us about the workshops and youth that you worked with to include Indigenous communities.

I’ve always done art and design but being in the art scene is a new space for me; I wanted to explore the co-creation process. Sharing resources is an important component of the process, I believe. This space has a very educational, institutional vibe and it lends itself to the scope needed for community workshops. The scale of the work required to enliven the space needs many hands. The piece itself is practice and healing work.

The collaborators and I were here most weekends in January and February. Since we are on Suquamish and Duwamish traditional lands, one weekend we had Indigenous teachers from Suquamish. These amazing women who are educators for and from their community—Tina, Jackson, and Kippy Joe— and the amount of information and knowledge that they share  in four hours is just indescribable. You can’t get that on YouTube or from a professor. You have to experience their oral teachings to begin to understand the richness and depth of the knowledge.

We had three Indigenous youth that day, and then we had a couple visitors just stop by who were interested in what we were doing. We had time to teach them and they got to learn. Every weekend I’ve had at least one Indigenous teen come in and help work with us through a partnership with yəhaw̓.

What are some of the historical uses of cattail mats?

In this region, mats were traditionally used as sheathing for summer structures. Mats are used all over the world, globally and indigenously for different surfaces. In the Plateau, Plains, Woodlands, and Southeast regions, mats are used for protection and warmth on their architectural structures.

Cattails have a multitude of uses. They protect us. When they’re just in the ground they clean the water and remove toxins. They can be food; they can be shelter; they can be water. When gathering cattails in the right spots, their uses extend beyond those listed so that one can understand the sustainability that the plant provides. Plant knowledge leads to understanding sustainability; sustainability leads to healing; healing leads to understanding their sacredness. I want everyone to know this.

I’m trying to make paper with cattails because I think that’s a more respectful use of them since they were gathered in the late fall season. I am super excited to do more scientific research on the sustainability of cattails, learning more traditional knowledge about them, and weaving. I realize you can approach a project and commit to working with a material, but then all these other sacred teachings come up, such as  how to work with other materials and plants. It’s not homogenous when we’re learning about our plant relatives.

Why have some of the cattails been cut and others left long and uneven?

As I started the process of creating this temporary installation with cattails some teachers said it was okay to gather now. When we made some mats, I knew they were not ideal materials and then, in the middle of the month, I learned that you should gather cattails at the end of summer for making mats. For this reason, some of the mats are trimmed and others are raggedy, in order to reveal the imperfection of the process. I like to break things apart until they become abstract, so that even though I’m using really traditional materials, the way I use them means you can’t necessarily tell what it is. For example, maybe your eye reads it as hair or as a bone or antlers. The raggedy mats—having them be more than one thing–helped convey that abstract concept. I think that process was kind of successful.

My architectural background makes me interested in exploring this building and wall system and I started to research and dissect like I normally do for a project. In architecture, you’re always researching and then drawing your theory. In art, you’re fabricating your theory. That’s when all this new information appeared to me. When you start to source your material and put it together, like, “This is why you have to harvest at a certain time and why you have to know where to gather and to get the reeds that are a certain height.” There are just all these little steps that make the process more efficient and that our ancestors knew and had good engineering minds for. I’m still doing it by trial and error and trying to find mentors.

The description of the temporary installation mentions that the structure is a portal for healing. How is this present in the work that is in the PACCAR Pavilion?

The sculpture forms a circular arbor and basket-like space. It incorporates some of the knowledge of the medicine wheel into the directions of the space and the layout. The teachings of the medicine wheel helps to orient our bodies with the land, plants and animals, nature and natural forces. In Plains tribes, you enter from the East like the sunrise. Here, in the West, a lot of structures face the water. All of the weavings that we made with Tina and Kippy are on that side and create filtered views to the water as much as possible since the water is so special. The North can reference the future, moving on, and death in some ways, too. The northern, open view gives people the opportunity to see that beautiful view of the park. The cattail threshold symbolizes a doorway into the future. A sustainable future holds the promise of healing.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, SAM’s Content Strategist & Social Media Manager

Photos: Jen Au

Muse/News: A new leader for SAM, Lorna’s dark paintings, and Frida’s voice

SAM News

Last week, SAM announced that Amada Cruz has been chosen as the museum’s new Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, succeeding Kimerly Rorschach who is retiring in September. Brendan Kiley of the Seattle Times had the exclusive. Brangien Davis of Crosscut and Jasmyne Keimig of the Stranger also both interviewed Amada.

And everyone else shared the news, including ARTNews, Artforum, Artnet, and Seattle Met. Even Representative Pramila Jayapal was eager to welcome Amada to Seattle!

Oh yeah: We also opened our major summer exhibition last week! Seattle Times photojournalist Alan Berner was there with a sneak peek of the beauty that is Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement.

And Seattle Magazine’s June issue features a round-up of “must-see” area museums—including, of course, SAM.

Local News

The future site of Capitol Hill’s AIDS Memorial Pathway will be activated this summer and beyond with temporary artworks and performances—including a series of dance performances curated by SAM’s Public Engagement Associate, David Rue!

Crosscut’s Brangien Davis on Discover + Disrupt at the Center for Architecture and Design; the show features work by art collective Electric Coffin that imagines “a more artful public cityscape.”

The Seattle Times’ Moira Macdonald on the controversy surrounding Penguin’s new edition of John Okada’s novel “No-No Boy.” UW professor Shawn Wong originally fought to have the book published and disputes the new edition.

“The publishing history of ‘No-No Boy’ is as important as the book itself,” he said, remembering how he would sell copies of the original CARP edition out of the trunk of his old Mustang in the 1970s. “To publish the book without acknowledging that publishing history is publishing a very incomplete story.”

Inter/National News

“Dark times, to me, mean dark paintings”: The New York Times’ Siddhartha Mitter speaks with Lorna Simpson about her new show, which sees the artist continuing to work in ever-new mediums, including painting.

Artnet’s Sarah Cascone on the Delaware Art Museum’s plans for a reinstallation of much of its permanent collection and how they’re engaging the community in their prototyping process—including Post-Its!

The Guardian’s Nadja Sayej on a “groundbreaking” exhibition of work by Native women at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The show features a loan from SAM’s collection: Marie Watt’s Blanket Stories.

“90% of Native art is made by women. Native artists know this. It’s just non-Native people who haven’t recognized that.”

And Finally

Is this Frida Kahlo’s voice?

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations

Photo: Natali Wiseman

SAM Field Trips: Native Art You Need to See Now

During Double Exposure: Edward S. Curtis, Marianne Nicolson, Tracy Rector, Will Wilson, the SAM social team took a few Friday afternoon field trips to visit other museums in Washington that are currently exhibiting work by Native artists. If you missed our Instagram stories, here’s a quick round up of a few exhibitions currently on view around the state that are not to be missed.

Museum of Northwest Art

In Red Ink
Through September 23, 2018

Curated by RYAN! Feddersen and featuring art by Asia Tail and Fox Spears, we just had to stop by for more creative output from these artists who have also been involved with SAM during Double Exposure. The collection of art on view offers a range of styles from contemporary Native artists in a variety of mediums by artists hailing from tribes across the extended Pacific Northwest and beyond. Feddersen is the mastermind behind the Post Human Archive, the social media activity that was installed at SAM.

Asia Tail, also a curator (we can’t wait to see yəhaw̓ at the King Street Station opening in January 2019) is the hand behind the words on the Double Exposure website but we hadn’t seen her art previously! Fox Spears is one of the teaching artists offering free Drop-In Studio workshops at SAM (there’s one more workshop on Sunday led by Sondra Segundo before the exhibition closes) and it was so nice to see this work after learning so much about his process!

Tacoma Art Museum

Native Portraiture: Power and Perception
Through February 10, 2019

 

The lens we look through changes everything. In Native Portraiture, Tacoma Art Museum asks the question: What is communicated when an outsider portrays someone from another culture?

In the galleries you will have the chance to see contemporary Native artists representing Indigenous cultures for themselves. These works are interspersed by a few examples of depictions by non-Native artists that romanticize, stereotype, or appropriate Native people and cultures. We recommend spending at least an hour or two in this gallery to fully absorb the impact of this contrast.

Suquamish Museum

Ancient Shore, Changing Tides
Ongoing

Do yourself a favor and enjoy the ferry and short drive that it takes to get to Suquamish Museum. Well designed and chock-full of information, the permanent installation tells a detailed and important story through movement, textures, the forest environment and the symbolic movement of the tide. The objects on view, many never before exhibited, are a combination of works owned by the Suquamish Museum and on loan from Suquamish families and other museums. The way these objects are arranged creates an environment where you will want to spend some time. The museum describes their goal  as an attempt to “displace the modern way of historical contextual understanding. Culture is more than historical events strung together.  The passing of knowledge and values, generation to generation, is the core of Suquamish culture.” Based on our visit, the Suquamish achieves their goal, and then some!

Where your day trips take you, SAM recommends you make the time to visit the wealth of museums in Washington featuring work by Native artists!

My Favorite Things: C. Davida Ingram on Sonny Assu’s Breakfast Series

“I think the value of Sonny Assu’s piece, Breakfast Series in SAM’s permanent collection, has a lot to do with righting the wrongs of history.” – C. Davida Ingram

Consider the value of contemporary Native art through the perspective of Seattle-based artist, curator, educator, and writer, C. Davida Ingram. Visit SAM’s Native Arts of the Americas galleries and the Art and Life Along the Northwest Coast installation to contextualize Sonny Assu’s Native formline design elements in his representation of Tony the Tiger or the “12 essential lies and deceptions” in his box of Lucky Beads. How does your perspective on food and access to land change as you consider the serious history behind this seemingly lighthearted artwork?

Artwork: “Breakfast Series,” 2006, Sonny Assu (Gwa’gwa’da’ka), Kwakwaka’wakw, Laich-kwil-tach, Wei Wai Kai, born 1975, five boxes digitally printed with Fome-cor, 12 x 7 x 3 in. each, of 5, Gift of Rebecca and Alexander Stewart, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2006.93, © Sonny Assu.

Object of the Week: The Mom Call

Eyes gravitate toward Brian Jungen’s work. On the surface, unexpected combinations make us wonder at the artist’s creativity. Looking more deeply, we find Jungen exploring identity in a way that resonates and challenges.

Jungen’s sculptural work The Mom Call acts like a stage where the forces of artistic choice and influence collide. The artist’s choices are unique. They also make very clear references to the life experiences that have shaped him. A combination of family and artistic heritage helped to bring about these choices, and in Jungen’s work, we see the artist physically molding a multi-faceted identity for himself.

In The Mom Call, Jungen has appropriated a chair produced for a notable 1940 design competition. By sampling the winning chair, he brings into his work the exclusive, European, bourgeois connotations linked to high-end design. The chair, though, is swallowed up in American elk hide, which is drawn taut by tarred twine according to traditional Native methods, forming a funny-looking—but functional—drum. Jungen was born in Fort St. John, British Columbia, to a Swiss-Canadian father and a Native mother of the Dane-zaa Nation. That dual heritage plays out in fascinating ways in Jungen’s work, where we can see him navigating his ancestries and finding a place among them.

A defining characteristic to his work is the clever re-use of objects. The creative vision Jungen displays when transforming Nike Air Jordans into Native-inspired masks, or when constructing whale skeleton replicas from petroleum-based plastics, is the meat and potatoes of his artistry, and he traces that habit of re-appropriating back to his mom. As a child, he would watch his mother and her family use objects outside of their original purposes to get stuff done. This “improvisatory recycling,” as Jungen calls it, was driven by necessity, but it also reflected a habit of looking at things for their potential, rather than their intention. Jungen learned from his mother how to be resourceful, how to deconstruct a known thing and create a new meaning for it.

Back to The Mom Call: The clean lines and the industrial, artificial quality of a modern piece of designer furniture give way to a sloping, organic form. The elk hide covers the chair, hiding its details but revealing its form, and changing its use, but not in a one-to-one transition. When we look at The Mom Call, we’re several steps removed from the item’s original function—chair as chair becomes chair as art object becomes chair-drum as functional art object (and museum exhibit, and so on). Influences, uses, interpretations, contexts, and perspectives all come into play. In this piece, Jungen displays original thinking about forms and how they communicate to us.

Tragically, Jungen lost both his parents in a fire when he was just seven. Through his art, the legacy of both his folks, but especially that of his mom—a woman who he says was “always trying to extend the life of things” 1—remains.

P.S. Brian Jungen’s mom made a difference—as moms do! Happy Mother’s Day to my mom and all our SAM Blog-reading moms!

Image: The Mom Call, 2011, Brian Jungen (Canadian, born 1970), Organic Chair by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, American elk hide, tarred twine, steel, granite, 80 1/4 x 33 x 29 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum, 2014.34, © Brian Jungen, Photo: Natali Wiseman.
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