Seattle offers many venues for viewing the work of Pacific Northwest Native Americans, but the current show at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) expands that to the work of indigenous peoples throughout most of the North American continent. The exhibit, culled from the Diker Collection, is divided into eleven sections, grouping artistic traditions of cultures defined by geography, media, and a shared past. The common thread of “Indigenous Beauty” is beauty itself–the passion for beauty and art in even the most ordinary and functional objects from bowls to clothes to weapons.
Though not strictly functional, masks feature prominently here, prized for their role in cultural ceremonies–which when connected to issues like ensuring a successful hunt or harvest, play a functional role as well. Those featured in Masks of the Alaskan Arctic present spirits of animals and other-than-human beings in all their “otherworldly strangeness.” A giant black and white photo shows a shaman in such a mask, along with enormous wooden hands, healing a boy who almost disappears within his and the shaman’s fur robes. Discouraged by missionaries, the tradition of masks almost disappeared, to be revived in the late 20th century.
Shifting to the geography of the Southwest, the Katsinam or Katsina Dolls of the Hopi and Zuni people also portray helpful spirit beings. Carved from cottonwood, these figures are decorated with masks and costumes signifying their roles.
Functional art also records history here, such as the painting on the hide of a tipi showing warriors on horses, or the battle shield of Joseph No Two Horns (warrior and artist) covered with a thunderbird radiating power from its wings.
Some of the most beautiful work in the exhibit is the baskets woven from materials such as sumac shoots and devils claw seed pods. Over time, these shifted from geometric designs to more pictorial scenes of bears and whales, partly as the basket weavers began to see their products not only as objects of daily use but also as goods marketable to outsiders. To the weavers’ credit, the “tourist” baskets retained the same tight weave and high quality as their functional cousins.
As glass beads from Belgium and Venice made their way into the hands of indigenous North Americans, designs on pouches, storage bags, and clothing became replete with them, woven into hides in patterns of animals on children’s jackets or abstracts that bring to mind the geometry of paintings by modernist Piet Mondrian. One of the most breath-taking pieces is a baby carrier, covered with patterns of glass beads; a baby carrier was often a gift of love to a young mother, woven by a relative and reflecting how much babies were cherished.
Though some pieces date as far back as the mid-eighteenth century, there are some contemporary pieces as well, by artists reflecting on their roots while incorporating current materials and techniques, such as a Haida rattle made not from the traditional wood but blown glass.
Audio tours are available by various means, including rentable wands or your own Smartphone. The exhibit runs through May 17. Check the Sam website for hours and associated lectures and performances.