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Rethinking Edward Curtis Everywhere This Summer

(And a few notes on other events)

On the 150th birthday of perhaps our most famous local photographer, Edward Curtis, you will not be able to escape him this summer! In addition to exhibitions at the Tacoma Art Museum and the Seattle Art Museum, twenty other institutions are exploring Curtis and his legacy in a collaboration called “Beyond the Frame: to be Native.” Contemporary native artists contradict, correct and caricature Curtis and the cliché of the “vanishing race.” His monumental work The North American Indian, a staggering 20 volumes of text and images (entirely online at tries to “preserve” Indians in a pristine past that was already a myth when he worked between 1907 and 1930.

Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke Nation, born 1981), Four Seasons–Indian Summer, 2006. Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag, 23 × 26 inches. Tacoma Art Museum, Gift of Loren Lipson, 2017-04. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Tacoma Art Museum’s “Native Portraiture Power and Perception,” part of their ongoing redefining of “western art” includes only two iconic Edward Curtis photographs, as well as a few traditional “western” artists, then jumps to provocative contemporary native art. Don’t miss the video at the entrance by Cannupa Hanska Luger, Dylan McLaughlin and Ginger Dunnill. “This is a Stereotype: Misconceptions of the Native American,” based on archival footage and interviews, exposes popular culture stereotypes forced on Native people. For example, a native man dresses up as a “chief” to be photographed at a festival. Wendy Redstar caricatures clichés with her self-portraits in hokey settings. Stephen Foster creates 3D sepia photographs using toy figurines. And there is a lot more.

The Seattle Art Museum’s “Double Exposure: Edward S Curtis, Marianne Nicholson Tracy Rector and Will Wilson” opens on June 14 with 150 works by Edward Curtis paired with three contemporary native artists, Marianne Nicholson, Tracy Rector and Will Wilson. Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art, presents Curtis’s great project as almost an accident of fate: he saved some climbers on Mt Rainier who turned out to be eminent scientists of the day. When they went to Alaska on the Harriman expedition to study native culture, they invited him to come as photographer. Although he was already established in Seattle as a successful portrait photographer, the obsession that took over his life, to photograph the “vanishing race” received a big stimulus from that trip. He had photographed local natives in Seattle, particularly “Princess Angeline,” who also posed for him in several images of the abandoned “winter villages” in the mid 1890s, just forty years after the arrival of white settlers and the Treaty of Point No Point.

On a smaller scale, The Seattle Public Library opens an exhibition on June 8 focusing on the Salish Sea and Indigenous Stewardship. It crucially focuses on the environment, in this case the sea. Since contemporary tribes are leading the resistance to resource extraction, pipelines and the expansion of coastal ports for shipping coal or processing natural gas, I was surprised not to see that as a focus of any of these exhibitions.

The Suquamish Museum in “Deconstructing Curtis: Romanticism vs. Reality” places the Curtis photographs in the context of the stories “behind the photographs.” If you haven’t been to this fascinating museum just past the Agate Point Bridge on the Kitsap Peninsula, I recommend it. Another tribal museum participating in this project starting on June 1 is the Tulalip Hibulb Cultural Center, which combines a museum with a nature reserve, a good summer destination.

The Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center focuses on how the bond between Native Americans and their environment has changed over time. Accompanying their exhibition are lectures that focus on the Wapata, Wanapum and Wanatchi.

A few exhibitions don’t even include Curtis such as Ryan! Feddersen and Chloe Dye Sherpe’s curated exhibition “In Red Ink” at the Museum of Northwest Art (opening July 7) or the always wonderful Preston Singletary’s “Raven and the Box of Daylight” at the Chihuly Museum of Glass (opening in the fall).

This is just a sample of the Curtis legacy reworking-extravaganza. Check the website at for lectures, music, performances and other exhibitions. In addition, the site has videos of contemporary life, music and more.

Moving on to a new theme, “Wham, Bam, Pow! Cartoons, Turbans and Confronting Hate,” at the Wing Luke Museum features Vishavjit Singh’s Captain America project. It includes both his personal story based on the outrageous racism he and other Sikhs experience immediately after 9/11, as well as his cartoons, and photographs from his performances as a turbaned Captain America confronting prejudice one person at a time.

Finally, there is the new Nordic Museum. As of press time, I have not yet visited it, but I am eager to see “Northern Exposure,” contemporary arts from “Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and the autonomous regions of Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Åland.” Another feature is the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen, who assisted many stateless refugees after World War I by providing a “Nansen passport” under the auspices of the League of Nations. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. We certainly need him today to address the enormous stateless problem that spans the globe leaving people in limbo and detention for years.

In conclusion, next year is the last for our Seattle Symphony conductor, Ludovic Morlot. I encourage you to take advantage of his brilliant programming during the coming year. And be sure to patronize our other excellent cultural organizations. Spectrum, for example, based in our neighborhood, is a world-renowned dance group. Our large theaters including ACT, Intiman and the Seattle Rep, as well as Arts West in West Seattle, perform cutting edge plays. In addition, Capitol Hill and the Central District as well as South Seattle, feature many alternative venues. Musicians from avant-garde to hip hop to rap perform somewhere almost every night. Elliott Bay continually sponsors renowned authors. Get out and enjoy!

~Susan Noyes Platt

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