When you think of Native art, images of headdresses, baskets and button blankets may come to mind. In museums, Native art is often connected with historical works but Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA) is taking a different stance. The museum is challenging our romanticized notions with its latest show, “Native Hands: Indigenous Art of the Salish Sea.”
“There’s a preconceived idea of what Native art looks like. How it’s all supposed to have a meaning, how it’s supposed to be deeply spiritual based on ancient practices,” Miranda Belarde-Lewis said. “This exhibit was the chance to say Native art can be this. It can be this. It’s a very inclusive show.”
Belarde-Lewis is an independent curator and served as an adviser to the show at bima. She’s from Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, and her mother is Tlingit, a southeastern Alaskan tribe. One of her goals for the show is bringing awareness to the vast array of Native art and the artists who are working in the industry.
“People will see things that they didn’t expect in this show,” Belarde-Lewis said. “All of it is Native art.”
The contemporary works in the show include sculptures, paintings and masks. The group exhibition showcases the work of notable artists such as Robert Davidson, Marvin Oliver and Preston Singletary.
“Native Art is still coming into its own in the larger art community,” artist Alison Bremner said. “This, I believe, is a result of colonization. Upon contact with the Western world, our complex system of art was labeled as ‘primitive’ or ‘craft.’ It was not seen as art that could stand by itself. Contemporary artists are making a push for our art to be seen as art, without the past enduring stigmas attached to it.”
Two striking pieces in the show are Bremner’s “‘Wat’sa with a Pearl Earring” and “Mona Lisa Smile.” It’s her take on “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and the “Mona Lisa,” two works of art celebrated for centuries. Bremner superimposes land otter masks over the faces of the well-known women. She said in Northwest Coast mythology the creatures would transform into a woman and steal men away.
The works are unexpected and jarring. They aren’t traditionally pretty pieces of art. Bremner is reinventing classic portraiture in a style similar to the work of Kehinde Wiley, who recreates European portraits with modern, Black models. BIMA Chief Curator Greg Robinson described Bremner’s pieces as stunners and said they have a polarizing effect on visitors.
“Their sudden impact and the varying thoughts that she has behind it, they hit you immediately but it’s not a one liner,” Robinson said. “There’s a lot of complicated thinking behind it and I think they’re well done.”
Bremner said she became increasingly frustrated with how art history was taught while studying at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, British Columbia. “The exclusion of Native American art from the canon of ‘great art’ mirrors the exclusion of Native American issues as a whole from both Western history and modern news,” Bremner said, responding by email from Alaska. She created both pieces, “in response to both the exclusion of Native American art from art history, as well as in response to the male gaze present in the artworks that are considered ‘great.’”
Robinson also worked closely with Janet Smoak, Suquamish Museum director, and Angela Flemming, with the Suquamish Foundation, to create the exhibit. The two women served as guest curators for the show. Some of the art comes from the Clearwater Casino Resort collection which includes commissioned Coast Salish art.
Peg Deam’s “Eldar,” “Cattail Gathering Spirit” and “Fog,” are examples of using natural materials in an unconventional way. She used cedar, sweetgrass, wool and other items to create masks that look like human faces.
“I’m so used to seeing cedar as a basket or a hat,” Belarde-Lewis said of Dean’s work. “When she first exhibited them at the Suquamish Museum I just couldn’t stop staring at them because it really challenged my notion of what we could do with cedar.”
Susan Point’s “Whistler” is a bright acrylic on canvas painting. At first glance it’s a colorful mountain of curved vertical lines but once you look closer a fish, whale and wolf begin to appear. Nearby is an excerpt from the graphic novel “RED: A Haida Manga” by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. Blending imagery from Haida culture and Japanese manga, Yahgulanaas tells the story of Red, a leader of a small village, who sets out to rescue his kidnapped sister. “What’s wonderful about this is you can see the whole form line design here in each of these panels,” Robinson said.
The focus of the work in the show is the Salish Sea area, which includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia.
“Artists in the show are either tribally affiliated within the Salish Sea region or they have lived and worked here for a long time,” Robinson said. “It’s not called Native American because some of the artists, for example the Canadian artists, would refer to themselves as First Nation. There are some that might prefer Indian or Indian American. Not everyone fits in one box.”
Belarde-Lewis said, beyond appreciating Native art, she hopes it’s the start of an important conversation because Bainbridge Island is traditional Suquamish territory.
“It’s something tangible that you can point to and experience and have discussions around it that really speak to the points that you’re trying to make about disenfranchisement, about land loss, about imminent domain,” Belarde-Lewis said. “The show is a great way for Bainbridge to start recognizing where they are. They’re on Native land and it’s not a conversation I hear a lot.”