Visual Art Currently Hanging
posted by October 27 at 10:08 AMon
Bark shredder (late 19th century, Quinault), bone, 8 1/2 by 6 inches
Spindle whorl (before 1912, Cowichan), wood, 8 3/8 by 8 by 7 inches
It’s fair to say that the big new show of Coast Salish art at Seattle Art Museum doesn’t have to do much to be a success: Its existence alone is an improvement. Although the Coast Salish are the native people on the land that extends south almost to the Columbia River and north all the way to the top of the Strait of Georgia—encompassing the cities of Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle, and Bellingham, and Victoria, Vancouver, and Nanaimo, B.C.—no one in any of those cities has ever organized a major show of Coast Salish art before.
The show was complex to put together, but the material is simplistically presented, unfortunately. I still recommend going (and admission is suggested rather than required, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities). My full review comes out Wednesday, but here’s a bit of it.
“Our people have preferred to be quiet,” Upper Skagit elder Vi Hilbert says, and she could be referring to the contrast between the Salish and the dominant force in Northwest native art—the force that for years was treated as the only Northwest native art: what is called “formline” design, made by tribes situated hundreds of miles north of here. The Haida and Tlingit are the best known of these, and their art has completely overshadowed Salish art.
Salish art is simpler, subtler, and looser than the northern style. It is not always symmetrical. It has a muted palette. Dazzlingly colored warrior masks and heraldic totem poles standing outside of homes for anthropologists to gawk at: these are not Salish objects. Salish house posts are installed indoors and bear private meanings. While northerners used objects for decoration, the Salish did not. Weavings, baskets, spindle whorls (for spinning wool), rattles, and drums are adorned with story iconography but made for ceremonial use. Some ceremonies are too secret for their objects to go on display. The religious practices of Salish people are especially introverted; certain names and experiences are thought to lose power if they are widely shared. All of this means that the Salish—in addition to being ignored or swept aside for 150 years—don’t spend a lot of time clamoring for the attention of outsiders, either.
This is the original famous Northwest reserve.