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“Water is Life”

Updated: Apr 23, 2022

Seattle Art Museum 1300 First Ave, Seattle, WA 98101; 206.654.3100 Hours: 10am–5pm, Wednesday–Sunday

“Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water” runs from March 18–May 30, 2022. Free admission April 7 for First Thursday.

“Hammerhead,” 2020.
“Hammerhead,” 2020. Ghost net, rope, twine over steel frame. Racy Oui-Pitt, Nancy Naawl, Lavinia Ketchell, Florence Gutchen, Emma Gela, Ellarosse Savage, Jimmy K, Thaiday, Jimmy John Thaiday (ErubCollective), and Lynnette Griffiths; Collection of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi.

During the pandemic, three curators at the Seattle Art Museum, working remotely, created “Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water,” an intense exhibition drawn entirely from the museum’s own collections and local collectors.

On the theme of water and our threatened planet, they choose 74 artists from 17 countries and seven Native American tribes. The exhibition presents the many moods of water: mesmerizing and relaxing, overwhelming and terrifying, nourishing and toxic.

The curators, Pamela McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art, Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art, and Natalia Di Pietrantonio, newly appointed as Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, working in collaboration with community advisors, created themes that refer to water as necessary to life, as pleasure, as law, as mythic and as desecrated. By educating us, they hope to rouse us to action. For me, it brought to mind a book by my naturalist father, Rutherford Platt, Water, the Wonder of Life (1971) which was part of an earlier environmental awakening.

Ken Workman, a direct descendant of Chief Seattle, welcomes us in the Lushootseed language in a video.

He stands on the shores of his tribal home, the Duwamish River, the river of plenty before white colonizers arrived, and now a Superfund site and industrial wasteland.

After Workman’s greeting we look up to see Carolina Caycedo’s fifty-foot banner that charts the change in a river from healthy to polluted, signaling the theme of the exhibition in one dramatic statement. Nearby Caycedo’s video “A Gente Rio: We River” 2016 brings us the voices of the people living on the Paranà River in Brazil as they explain their traditional ways and the devastating impact of the Itaipu Dam. But these people have also protested. They know exactly why the dam was built: the result of corporate impunity.

Hanging nearby is a hammerhead shark, constructed of fish nets and steel. We can look right into the eyes of its hammer shaped head. The Ghost Net Collective on the Erub islands (Northeast of Australia) underscore the lethal presence of the fishing nets in the sea with these sculptures. The point out the irony that Australians consider these sharks as a threat, whereas their culture holds them sacred.

We now enter the exhibition itself and the themes begin.

“Rains that Flood and Hypnotize”

Rain sustains us, but it also overwhelms and kills. Raghubir Singh’s photograph of four women huddled together in a monsoon downpour, speaks to the welcome rains of India. But another work in the indigenous Mithila style by artist Amrita Das graphically depicts the effects of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka as people’s villages are entirely wiped out.

“Rivers and Canoe Journeys That Sustain Life”

In the Northwest the return of the indigenous Canoe Journey, when Tribes travel the ancestral sea routes of their cultures has revived many tribal cultures. On the journey to a host tribe, the canoes make ceremonial stops. Twice I have been lucky to be visiting a Native community as it formally welcomed participants with music, dance, and shared food.

Three dramatic videos by Tracy Rector celebrate these journeys, and their partner, indigenous resistance.

“Oceans with Bodies Like Our Own”

Seeing global nomad artist Paulo Nazareth’s lying on a beach suggests the peace that we all experience, lulled by the sound of the sea. But he is only briefly resting on his year long journey walking barefoot from Brazil to New York.

“Kurtal,” 2005.
“Kurtal,” 2005. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Ngilpirr Spider Snell. Gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan.

“Pools of Pleasure and Reverence”

The dramatic image of Kurtal by Australian aboriginal artist Ngilpirr Spider Snell represents a spirit snake who “lives in a sacred waterhole called a jila. This desert spring is the only reliable source of water in all seasons . . . Kurtal is the moral protector of the right to use it and the land around it. …” Such deep connections to land and water appear repeatedly in aboriginal art.

“Patterns of Water”

Japanese artist Ogata Korin evokes the rolling sea in his large golden screen painting Waves. In stark contrast, Claude Zervas’ fluorescent outline of the Nootsack River glows in a dark corner. The artist has spent years next to this river and watched it degrade as it was dammed.

So that is just a taste of this extraordinary exhibition. I have been twice and will go many more times.

Next month, I will address the other five themes. I will also discuss “We Are Changing the Tide,” an exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum, created entirely by a community team, about climate change and the grass roots activists who are resisting it.

* The title of this article is the theme of the ongoing native protests against corporate pipelines that continue to destroy native land and water.

~Susan Platt, PhD


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