Weekly Volcano Blogs: Walkie Talkie Blog

June 15, 2011 at 11:31am

FIRST PEEK: "In the Spirit: Contemporary Northwest Native Arts" at the Washington State History Museum

PRIZE CONTENDER: "Peeling the Apple" by Charles Bloomfield / courtesy photo

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For the sixth year in a row, the Washington State History Museum has selected a juried exhibit of contemporary Native American art for display in one of its featured galleries. This year's exhibit is called In the Spirit: Contemporary Northwest Native Arts. I was allowed to browse the exhibit two days before its June 16 opening, on a walkthrough guided by curator Lynette Miller. "How diverse it is," Miller remarks, admiring the collection. These artists "are doing all kinds of things. Some people have gone to art school; they've done years of study. Some people are more self-taught and intuitive." As for the content,  Miller describes it as, "very traditional, very non-traditional."

She's right. An almost iconic image of a bird of prey ("Night Hawk," by Jennifer Johns) hangs side by side with a Kaila Farrell-Smith triptych as hip as anything in MoMA.

Despite variation in training levels, the work is impressive and evocative throughout. Indeed, it was vetted by critical eyes. "(The artists) submit (to) a jury of three people," Miller says. "We at the Historical Society are partners with the Longhouse Educational and Cultural Center at Evergreen State College for this event. There's a juror that represents the Historical Society, and another who represents Longhouse...Then there's a third juror, and the last few years, we had the person who won the Best in Show prize the year before be that juror."

It seems a daunting job. "We get a big mix of things every year," she agrees, having been one of those jurors herself in past years. "The jurors also select those artists who will win the awards, which are cash prizes." There are six prizes in total, plus a People's Choice award. Visitors to the exhibit "vote all during the run of the show."

As we stroll past two- and three-dimensional pieces, Miller notes, "There's some with a fair amount of political content, that deals with Native issues." As one might expect, two of those issues are ecology and resistance to assimilation. Miller indicates an Erin Genia clock sculpture called Blood Quantum Countdown. "To be officially an American Indian," Miller says, "you have to have a certain level of ‘blood quantum' from your parents...You can be registered in a tribe if you have some levels, but less than 1/32nd usually isn't enough." Such quantification became politically loaded as the Federal government decided the best thing for indigenous culture was to "help" it to be more European.

"There's this discussion of whether (blood quantum) establishes credentials," Miller says. We're looking at the piece shown above, Peeling the Apple by Charles Bloomfield, in which the feet and hands of a white mannequin have been dipped in red paint. It's thought-provoking work; to the untrained eye, it seems one of several likely prize contenders. "There is a jury winner," Miller says, but declines to reveal that winner. "It'll be announced on opening night."

The show includes a festival Aug. 6, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., with performances by Native American singers and dance troupes. It's a welcome opportunity to view our region through its original cultural window.

[Washington State History Museum, In the Spirit, June 16 through August 28, free to members, $6-$8 otherwise, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.798.5925]

Filed under: Arts, All ages, Tacoma,
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