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“The Stories We Carry”: The New Installation of the American Art Galleries at the Seattle Art Museum

Community and Conversation highlight Capitalism and Colonialism in the American West in the newly created American Art installation at the Seattle Art Museum.

Theresa Papanikolas, Curator of American Art, and Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art began to “interrogate and re-contextualize the collection” with the help of 11 community advisors and three artists in the summer of 2021. Certainly, the death of George Floyd, and the protests that followed sparked elite predominantly white institutions across the country to rethink their own unacknowledged racism.

Consequently, the American art galleries formerly filled with art by predominantly white artists, have been entirely transformed.

Barbara Brotherton, retiring curator of Native American Art declared that the museum is following a “dramatically different approach, bringing the historical American art collection into conversation with Native, Asian American, African American, Latinx, and contemporary art. This new interpretive framework brings forward historically excluded narratives and artistic forms. Instead of seeing these communities as parallel to the so-called mainstream history, the museum now is looking at intersections. “

No longer organized chronologically, “The Stories We Carry,” features five themes: Storied Places, Transnational, Reimagining Regionalism, Ancestors plus Descendants/ Faces of America and Ancestors plus Descendants/Memory Keepers.

Wendy Red Star. “Áakiiwilaxpaake (People of the Earth),” 2022. Seattle Art Museum Commission Archival ink jet prints, dibond, LED lights, electrical components, wood, milk plexiglass, 84 x 62 x 12 in.

At the entrance the delightful Wendy Red Star, one of the lead artists, confronts us with a large lightbox: Áakiiwilaxpaake (People of The Earth). Red Star humorously and seriously speaks of how excluded she felt from the American art galleries by the boring American art genres, portraiture, and landscape.

Portraits of 70 native women, youth and even babies stand in front of the Northwest icons Mt Rainier and the Space Needle. Contemporary Native people are front and center in the present and future, rather than their usual position in the past as a prelude to white America.

Shaun Peterson (Tulalip/Puyallup, Qwalsius)’s Song for the Moon (2022) presents the Puyallup creation myth in a banner like painting. The label declares: “Native philosophies offer different ways of knowing the land, including the belief that all animate and inanimate beings are alive and indivisible from the land. Nature and its many features are thought to be sacred, not scenic.”

Next to it is Sanford Robinson Gifford’s Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma – Puget Sound (1875) with tiny figures dwarfed by the landscape and its golden light. These paintings, as the label comments “cast the region’s original communities as characters in the myth of the American wilderness: wild, remote, and poised to be taken over. “

Inye Wokoma excavated works of art buried in storage to curate an entire gallery that “Reimagines Regionalism.” He wrote long interpretations with his insightful interpretations.

Leading off is Roger Shimomura 1978, Minidoka Series #2: Exodus, 1978 from his first Minidoka series, in the Ukiyo-e style. Next to him, the mid-century modernists Kenjiro Nomura and Kamekichi Takata are finally given the prominent place they deserve.

My favorite juxtaposition in Wokoma’s gallery was the overlap of an elevator door of the Chicago Stock Exchange in front of a painting of Puget Sound by Albert Bierstadt. Apparently, Bierstadt never saw the Puget Sound, the painting is entirely fabricated.

Then Wokoma pulls no punches!

“The Indigenous figures along the dramatic shoreline seem inconsequential to the grand possibilities of the land: the subtext for this painting commissioned by a wealthy merchant. . . The elevator screen from the Chicago Stock Exchange (ca. 1893-94) by the “father of skyscrapers” Louis Sullivan is an utterly literal symbol of economic expansion, the overwhelming might of colonialism. Now installed so that visitors can move entirely around it and look through it, the screen offers an opportunity to consider what this gateway was leading to—and what it kept out.”

In the last gallery “Ancestors + Descendants/Memory-Keepers” includes the only Latinx artists Alfredo Arreguin, acquired only this year, and Cecilia Alvarez, a gift to the museum in 1992 and never before exhibited.

The grand finale is the extraordinary basket by Suquamish artist Ed Carriere. He recreates weaving techniques from thousands of years ago by working with archeologists to recover fragments from waterlogged sites. As Brotherton states “Carriere’s precise work challenges notions of artistic hierarchy and provides a nuanced view into the brilliance of transforming humble materials into works of memory and power.”

“The Stories We Carry,” entirely rejects traditional myths of the American West such as Manifest Destiny. Instead the stories told here by a diverse cross section of voices, explore questions of conquest and colonialism, as well as exchange and tradition.

~Susan Platt, PhD


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