Taylor Dean’s painting featuring Puyallup tribal leader Ramona Bennett is one of many prominent pieces in the sweeping exhibition yәhaw̓ at King Street Station. In it, Bennett is draped in a red cloak against a turquoise background. Two whales swim above her head. Bennett holds a sign that reads “I’m Legendary and I’m a Water Warrior.” Dean’s vibrant and large-scale piece floats in a sea of eye-catching sculptures, textiles, photographs, carved masks and video. In all, nearly 300 objects crafted by 200 Indigenous artists are on display.
yәhaw̓ is a yearlong Indigenous-led project that kicked off last fall during Seattle Art Fair. Performances, mentorships, artist residencies and satellite exhibitions across Puget Sound are all a part of yәhaw̓. The King Street show serves as the centerpiece.
Gallery text and a video explain the origin of yәhaw̓. It’s derived from a Coast Salish story of people from many tribes who come together to lift the sky after the Creator left it too low. They spoke different languages but they all learned one word, yəhaw’, which means to “go forward, to do it.” Guided by that principle, curators Satpreet Kahlon, Tracy Rector (Choctaw/Seminole) and Asia Tail (Cherokee) decolonized the process of entry into the exhibition. Typically, a gallery puts out an open call for art for a show, artists apply, then only a select number of people are chosen. For yәhaw̓, they accepted all Indigenous artists who submitted work. The result is a nuanced show of traditional and contemporary works from emerging artists to those with decades of experience.
Rector is proud of the result from the collaboration with hundreds of people who brought yәhaw̓ to life.
“The Indigenous community has the ability to undertake something of this magnitude and show up for it,” said Rector. “I think that it’s important to show not only the abilities of the Indigenous community to create all types of artwork, but the support that non-Native people have in wanting to see a diverse representation of Native artwork.”
Artist HollyAnna “CougarTracks” DeCoteau Littlebull (Yakama/Nez Perce/Cayuse/Cree) spent several months creating an upcycled Bigfoot that reaches the ceiling. The colorful figure commands attention just from her size alone. During the opening on March 23, Littlebull explained her plastic sculpture titled “Lifts the Sky.” She held court several times as a new crop of people made their way over for a closer look at her creation. Blue, purple, green and black plastic cutlery interconnect on the back of the sculpture and are overlaid on various forms of colorful plastic. Littlebull said it represents her past, her parents’ past and the past of her elders which includes genocide, violence and boarding schools. The Native artist included the past because she believes you have to contend with it, rather than try to erase it.
“You have to accept it for what it is. So that you can come together and see the good,” said Littlebull. “So that you can actually feel it and believe in it, and the hard part is having hope, that there is something better in the future.”
The back of the right arm of the sculpture represents one’s passions and dreams. The artist put 298 toys inside the sculpture to represent the magnitude of Bigfoot’s job — to protect all living things according to her tribal legend.
The front of the sculpture represents the big picture and beauty. From the bottom a forest gives way to Mount Adams set against a blue sky. It’s a reminder not to dwell on what isn’t going well in our lives and pause.
“What do you want to see? And so Bigfoot helps us to look forward,” said Littlebull. “You don’t have to take big, giant steps. You just have to take a step and that’s all.”
She went on to say the sculpture is also about protecting Mother Earth from the trash polluting our waterways and food supply.
Other works in the show include women wearing tribal regalia among an urban center, Pacific Northwest landscapes and a mixed-media installation used for a performance. Demian DinéYazhi’ used red vinyl lettering on one of the windows for the succinct message “A NATION IS A MASSACRE.” Richard Heikkilä-Sawan’s “Freedom Flag” is the LGBTQ rainbow dyed on a buffalo hide. In a section devoted to Indigenous Womxn, a Matika Wilbur photograph shows two little girls from the Diné tribe with raised fists in the air.
Susan Ringstad-Emery created a narrative for her 9-foot painting “Nalukataq.” She imagined a folk tale of the Inupiat people working together with tribes from all around the Pacific region to return a tiny fallen star back to the sky.
Her work shows a little girl who is wearing a red-skirted parka sending a small star back up to the sky via blanket toss.
Ringstad-Emery said the work also speaks to the potential of children to effect change, “They’re the future and communities and families can and should uplift and nurture the talents of children and help them reach their highest and best.”
One benefit from being in the show for Ringstad-Emery is positive feedback and seeing the reaction of kids to her work, specifically the daughter of a Yupik carver.
“She was just looking up with her jaw dropped and it was just so amazing to me,” said Ringstad-Emery. “Then I heard that a lot of other children were being drawn like a magnet over to that artwork.”
yәhaw̓ is the inaugural show for Seattle Office of Arts and Culture’s newly renovated space at King Street. Exposed brick and beams remain but now there are a few more walls and offices for staff. The show opens with the reminder the space is on Indigenous land.
“We as Native people are not tokens but we’re part of the fabric and have been part of this living breath of this land for many generations,” said Rector. “That influences everything that we see and experience in this city.”
The works in yәhaw̓ are well organized and speak to one another. Around every corner and on every wall lies another captivating work of art. Visitors should give themselves an abundance of time to take it all in.
Littlebull, Rector and Ringstad-Emery all spoke to the community created because of yәhaw̓. Building connections, learning from one another and support in a safe setting are outgrowths of the project. Ringstad-Emery, who is Alaska Native and Nordic met a woman she was able to speak Norwegian with. At the opening Littlebull had an unexpected meeting with a boy who, like her, is colorblind. She encouraged him to approach his “weakness” as a strength and embrace the fact that he’ll always have a different perspective from others. Even two weeks later the interaction still had a profound impact on the artist.
All of their experiences surrounding yәhaw̓ speaks to the power of inclusion and impactful interactions that can occur when we elevate those who aren’t always the first to be chosen for the spotlight.
WHEN: Runs until Aug. 3, free and open to the public
WHERE: King Street Station, 303 S. Jackson St.
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