“Cultural imPRINT: Northwest Coast Prints” is an exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) of nearly 50 prints created by more than two dozen artists from the U.S. and Canada. The showcase of Northwest Coast printmaking’s 50-year history merges the past with the present and also explores familial ties among the artists. The show highlights the crucial role of the Northwest Coast Indian Artists Guild in elevating printmaking into fine art and mentoring the next generation.
TAM Curator Faith Brower hopes the show will shed more cultural light on the region and help visitors come away with a better understanding of the diversity of its people.
“A lot of these contemporary artists are able to honor their cultures and traditions through their artwork,” Brower said. “And they’re also able to find their own voices and bring their own experiences into the artwork.”
Northwest Coast refers to the Indigenous people living in the north-to-south region from the southern panhandle of Alaska into western British Columbia to the Columbia River at the state lines of Washington and Oregon. Thirteen main Native American and First Nations cultural groups reside in this area, including Chinook, Tlingit and Tsimshian. A map is also included in the show as an educational resource for visitors.
“Before the Snag” by Robert Davidson is one of the prominent works in the show. In the black-and-red screenprint, Davidson recounts a Haida legend about a blind fisherman who keeps losing his fish to a raven. Co-curator India Young said Davidson is sort of a father of the Northwest Coast Indian art world. He was a part of the guild, which began in 1977, along with Joe David and Roy Henry Vickers. Davidson is credited with being one of the first artists to transfer details found in carving, basketry and weaving onto prints.
“He has continued a practice of mentoring just a huge group of artists,” Young said. “Many of the artists here have worked specifically with Robert through his legacy.”
Among the artists in the show is Davidson’s son Ben and nephew John Brent Bennett. Bennett’s “Henslung” shows the balance of combining classic Haida art with his own aesthetic. The artist said he created the lithograph while enrolled at Concordia University in Montreal. While there, he dealt with how to portray his culture while away from Haida Gwaii, where he grew up. Henslung is a cove on Haida Gwaii.
“Taking a photograph from my home and photographs from the city that I found myself in and combining them with my thumbprint,” Bennett said. “Bringing the two cultures together through my art.”
Marika Swan and her father Joe David are also a part of the family legacy subgroup in the show. Swan’s “As Above, So Below,” is a black-and-white woodcut print of a squatting woman with Nootka roses blooming beneath her. Swan said the work is about the transformation of becoming a mother. She incorporates the Nuu-chah-nulth’s teachings that the natural and the supernatural worlds are a reflection of each other.
“I found becoming a mother a hugely transformational experience that allowed me to look at the world in a completely different way,” Swan said. “And also look at myself as a woman and what it means to be a woman and the ability to be a mother and what it means to be able to bring life into this world.”
The Nootka roses, or wild roses, further the life cycle narrative in the work. Swan said the flowers are not only beautiful but they also provide medicinal benefits to women.
Both of Swan’s parents are artists, but she initially shied away from joining the family business. After resisting she found her way to graphic design, then printmaking.
“I really enjoy how hands-on and tactile it is. You’re carving with your hands, then you ink with your hands, and you print with your hands, pull the paper off,” Swan said. “Because it’s so physical there’s often a lot of imperfections you end up with, but I really like that it’s been worked with somebody’s hands.”
Swan is committed to addressing women’s spirituality in her artwork. “Becoming Worthy — State I” shows a woman swimming underwater with a whale tethered to her ankle. Whales play an important role in her culture. She said historically her tribe had a spiritual relationship with food. The community would come together for a ceremony and the hunter would ask the whale for its life.
“In the piece, the whale is a metaphor. The whale could be anything, anything that you’re asking for in this life that you’re preparing for,” Swan said. “As a young woman there are really big things that I want to see happen for my community and my people. I recognize that I need to do the work spiritually and personally and be prepared for those things to come to me.”
Given the history of Northwest Coast printmaking, the show at TAM is noteworthy. Young said this show is the first time some of the artists are being shown in a public art gallery despite there being about 10,000 prints by Indigenous artists in circulation.
“The guild really shifted printmaking techniques into a higher class, so they used nicer paper. They juried each other’s work to make sure it was the best work, and they started charging more,” Young said. “That is what really shifted it into this fine art space for the larger world, but it still has taken public art galleries time to move into that.”
The significance of her father’s courage and success in the field is at the forefront of Swan’s mind. He came from a time when he wasn’t allowed to speak his native language in residential school. David and others cleared a path for her to flourish.
“There was a huge resurgence of Native culture and all of these prints were so incredibly popular,” Swan said. “But that’s really a testament to the bravery of his generation that they were able to come out of being treated so poorly as children for being Native and rise out of that and embrace their cultural heritage.”
“Cultural imPRINT” is a show beckoning the audience to slow down and process what’s happening in the print. Each work is crafted with intention and a well-thought-out narrative behind the imagery.
WHAT: “Cultural imPRINT: Northwest Coast Prints"
WHEN: Runs until August 20
WHERE: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave, Tacoma
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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