In your face

SAM's Northwest Coast show careens into the region's past.

Deep is the well of time past," wrote Thomas Mann at the beginning of Joseph and His Brethren: "Who knows how deep?" After 2,000-odd pages the novelist hasn't answered his own question, but manages to afford a dedicated reader a sense of dizzying temporal perspective, a squint down the precipitous cultural escarpment atop which we live all unconscious of the roots of our species-being deep below.

Native Journeys

Seattle Art Museum

ends May 10

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The special exhibition now on view at Seattle Art Museum affords an equally vertiginous view without requiring such Teutonic commitment, but it is not a show to be entered lightly. A great deal of thought and effort has been invested in "Native Journeys," and the show rewards visitors in direct proportion to the attention they invest in it. Pack a lunch and spend the day, or plan to return more than once: This is not just another showcase for Northwest Coast crafts but an exploration of what being human is all about.

"Native Journeys" is in fact not one show but two, but so craftily have the two been juxtaposed that both their divergences and overlaps yield insight. Show no. 1, "Native Visions," was curated by SAM's own Steve Brown and traverses material already familiar to many SAM visitors, but in a way that casts new light on its meaning.

Brown's primary theme is how Northwest Coast crafts changed in style and purpose between the mid­18th century and the present through contact and interaction with European cultures. But he also reminds us just how deep the well of the past really is by exhibiting objects that go back 1,000, 2,000 years before "first contact." Such objects are for the most part far too precious and/or fragile to be loaned by their possessors. Brown solves that problem with a photo-and-text gallery flanking the main approach to his exhibit: blowups of some of the (pathetically few) objects that have survived the ages as evidence of a hundred generations of life on these coasts. Do not skip this section in your haste to get to "the good stuff"; the good stuff will seem all the richer if you've taken time to get familiar with what it sprang from.

Brown displays his corporeal artifacts—carved argillite stone, cedar boxes, as well as masks—in physically demarcated areas, each representing one phase in the evolution of Coast art in contact with European material and culture. By this means the rapid evolution of the work is made palpable to the least-educated eye. You can see how the "native vision" changes from generation to generation, even decade to decade. And you can see that the development is anything but simple: neither an artistic decay under stress of a dominant alien culture nor a progressive enrichment of means due to same. It's a complicated story, despite its brevity, and in this installation by Brown and SAM's Michael McCafferty it jumps out at you like a drama composed in paint, shell, and cedar.

Part two of the show is organized quite differently. "Agayuliyararput (Our Way of Making Prayer): The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks" comes here directly from the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, but its origins run far deeper. Its curator, anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan, has been working among the native peoples of Alaska for a quarter-century. The trove of objects on view represent the culmination of a long series of exhibitions originally designed to bring the richness of the dance-mask tradition of southwest Alaska to the descendants of the creators of those masks: the Yup'ik of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Delta.

In photographs, the low, shrubby, waterlogged land of the Yup'ik does not look like a place you'd voluntarily spend several thousand years. And in fact it is not an area rich in the resources that early attracted Western attention: no gold; no arctic predators with glossy pelts; not even serious timber, only alder and willow. Compared to their remote relatives to the south, the Coast peoples of British Columbia and the Northwest, the Yup'ik were not, materially, well endowed.

One look at the masks they made for their annual ceremonies of harvest and gift giving is enough to prove that the Yup'ik more than made up in imagination and energy any material deprivation. Unlike most masks, theirs don't confine themselves to portraying a physiognomy, however vivid. These creations come at you, pull you into their cone of influence. The central visage is surrounded with feathers, flanges, frames, all reaching out, invading the viewer's space.

Photographs in the show and the gorgeous catalog (published by University of Washington Press) show that for the Yup'ik, the energy and thrust of the masks are matched by the freedom of the dance and ceremony they're used in. Much traditional ceremonial dance centers round the vertical axis, the conduit between earth and air. Yup'ik performers use the horizontal dimensions as well, sweeping up the space around them with oblique, canted, diagonal gesture as extended and dramatic as a modern dancer in German expressionist mode. Every black-and-white still seems a motion-picture frame, a dynamic excerpt from an unfolding drama.

The Yup'ik show, revealing geographical variations of one culture at a single moment, perfectly complements the verticality in time of the Northwest Coast show. The two together create that rarest of museum experiences: a direct spiritual encounter with another way of being and feeling, created through arrangements of objects but not confined to them. By concentrating on the specifics of two cultures remote both from ourselves and from each other, we experience anew the wonder of being human.

Related Links:

SAM's "Native Journeys" page


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