Art Objects and Family Heirlooms
- J. C. H. King (Editor) and Henriette Lidchi (Editor)
Imaging the Arctic. University of Washington Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Aldona Jonaitis (Editor)
Looking North: Art from the University of Alaska Museum. University of Washington Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sarah E. Boehme et al. (Author)
Powerful Images: Portrayals of Native America. University of Washington Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Renée Hulan
Together, these three collections exploring the power of visual imagery in contemporary culture raise an issue that vexes the study of art by Native people: as Dave Warren puts it, "the persistent question of boundaries—where art ends and ethnographic artifact begins" (Powerful Images).
Powerful Images and Looking North consider the relationship of art and artifact within a reconsideration of the museum’s function in contemporary culture. With their large "coffee table" format, glossy pages and colour plates, both collections also serve, as most museum publications do, to advertise the museums’ extensive holdings.
Powerful Images presents the contents of an exhibition organized by Museums West, a group of museums brought together to promote art from the North American West. The essays accompanying the beautiful colour plates address a general audience and will be of great interest to readers unfamiliar with the issues confronting museums holding Native American objects. In "Illusions and Deceptions: The Indian in Popular Culture," James H. Nottage challenges the distinction between fine art and kitsch, and argues that the tendency to marginalize images of the Native in popular culture indicates how viewers "have become too comfortable with the commercial exploitation of the Indian image." The plates included with this essay alone make the book worth buying. As well as fruit crate labels, lobby cards, and trade signs, they depict objects ranging from an ivory umbrella handle carved to depict a stereotyped chief in feather headdress to a puzzle produced by the Singer company depicting Plains women using their sewing machine beside a painted tipi. Sarah Boehme’s essay also stands out with its balance of informative and critical commentary, as in this succinct analysis of James Earle Fraser ’s End of the Trail: "The dejected Indian, seated on a horse whose posture echoes the melancholy theme, inverts the usually heroic formula of the equestrian sculpture." Her contextualization redeems the choice of this piece for the frontispiece of the collection.
Sarah E. Boehme acknowledges the way notions of "art for art’s sake" sever the link between art and culture, form and function, that Boehme and others maintain is highly valued by Native artists. While Emma Hansen emphasizes the economic, spiritual, and social functions of objects on the grounds that Native American languages have "no equivalent word for art," Mike Leslie undermines this assumption: "To simply state that a word does not exist oversimplifies the complex cultural diversity that exists among native people." Moreover, the insistence in both collections that certain objects are "art" maintains a hierarchy that the authors argue does not exist for Native American artists. This distinction has more to do with safeguarding the contents of museum collections, ensuring that the objects are worthy of display, than with making an epistemological argument. The development of museum collections as a result of what Bea Medicine calls "laundry list anthropology" is self-consciously addressed by various authors who note the relationship between museum acquisition and the late nineteenth-century image of the "dying or disappearing Indian." Yet, acknowledging the troubled history of museum acquisition and the "theory of museology" are ambivalent gestures at best. Such gestures distract from the continued practice of museum collection, as the absence of reference to provenance of specific objects suggests an absence of controversy surrounding the individual objects and obscures their continued relevance in the present.
Looking North combines colour plates of Alaskan art objects held by the University of Alaska Museum, poetry by Peggy Shumaker ("award-winning poet and English professor"), essays, and conversation with artists and museum staff. The editors state that "[n]ew ideas on art and museums inform this publication," and this concern is apparently reflected in the book’s inclusive structure, which places Aleut grass wallets alongside abstract oil painting, Inupiaq baleen baskets next to realistic watercolours, or ancient ivory carvings and contemporary sculpture. Although this approach represents the diversity of the collection, the Alaska Museum retains the conventional arrangement into departments of ethnology, archaeology, and fine art, tending to undermine the claim to new ideas. Similarly, when the focus of the text shifts from artefacts to the newly minted term "artifakes" defined as "things made in a ’traditional’ style that could easily be mistaken for Native manufacture" sold by "disreputable dealers," the fixation on the authenticity of objects disrupts the réévaluation of museology ostensibly at the heart of the project.
Most of the text consists of transcribed conversations between various artists and museum staff members. Whenever a dispute seems about to develop, such as when one participant corrects another’s (and the collection’s) use of "Aleut" rather than "Alutiiq," it is quickly dropped. In another instance, when Aldona Jonaitis invokes Walter Benjamin’s "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in order to argue the relative value of encountering an object in a museum rather than seeing a photograph or reading about it, no one questions her puzzling interpretation, and the next speaker in the dialogue changes the subject. The result is a highly self-conscious dialogue that allows the participants to circle issues concerning the practice of museology without answering the numerous questions they raise, and the ease with which subjects can be dropped is frustrating.
In contrast, Imaging the Arctic, a collection of papers presented at a conference entitled Imagining the Arctic: The Native Photograph in Alaska, Canada and Greenland at the British Museum in 1996, offers a thought-provoking and comprehensive treatment of the relationship between indigenous peoples and representation by successfully mediating the art-artifact distinction. This entails a sophisticated understanding of Benjamin’s insight that, since the mimetic impulse is really a desire to become the Other, attempts to distinguish between art and artifact in cross-cultural representation will always be ideological. Imaging the Arctic is an eclectic gathering including biographies of individual photographers (such as Peter Pitseolak, Geraldine Moodie, and John MÃ¶ller), histories and inventories of photographs taken on a series of Arctic expeditions, and theoretical discussions of the role of photography and film in cross-cultural contact. Some of the articles concentrate on the history of expeditions rather than on the photos taken during them and tend to treat the photos as artifacts rather than art. However, even in these essays, the research is meticulous and clearly presented. Other essays combine theoretical and technical knowledge of the form with archival research successfully. Peter Geller ’s "Pictures of the Arctic Night: Archibald Lang Fleming and the Representation of the Canadian Inuit" describes the use of photography in the mission to Christianize the Inuit while Jim Burant’s "Using Photography to Assert Canadian Sovereignty in the Arctic" does just that in a comprehensive analysis of photography on the A.P. Low expedition. Many of the essays describe the tension between the photograph as artistic expression and scientific documentation and attempt to unsettle the perceived truth value of photographs. William W. Fitzhugh demonstrates Edward Nelson’s "staging" of photographs for dramatic effect and con-textualizes it within Nelson’s contribution to the scientization of natural history.
Many of the essays in Imaging the Arctic portray the historical context in which photographs were taken in the past without ignoring their value in the present. These photographs, it is remembered, have meaning for the people and communities represented in them, as Chris Wooley and Karen Brewster conclude in their essay: "Photographs can be items of ethnographic study, art objects and family heirlooms all at the same time. Professional researchers can make an important contribution to native communities by working to continue the process of visual repatriation and by making collections accessible to the communities where the photographs were taken...." What Wooley and Brewster affirm for these photographs also applies to collections of "art" and "artifacts" alike.
- Unique Childhoods by John Moffatt
Books reviewed: Caribou Song/ atíhko níkamon by Tomson Highway, As Long as the River Flows by Constance Brissenden and Larry Loyie, George Johnson's War by Mary Beaty and Maureen Garvie, Mission to Little Grand Rapids by Luther Schuetze, and Solomon's Tree by Andrea Spalding
- Breaking Out of the Lens by Deena Rymhs
Books reviewed: Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film by John E. O'Connor and Peter C. Rollins and Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing by Simon Ortiz
- Autobiography and Truth by Arthur W. Frank
Books reviewed: Light Writing & Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography by Timothy Dow Adams and The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America by Anne Fabian
- Haunted Histories, Storied Selves by Erin Wunker
Books reviewed: Girl Unwrapped by Gabriella Goliger and The Obituary by Gail Scott
- Versions of History by Duffy Roberts
Books reviewed: Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor and Dahanu Road by Anosh Irani
MLA: Hulan, Renée. Art Objects and Family Heirlooms. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #167 (Winter 2000), First Nations Writing. (pg. 112 - 114)
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