Contemporary Northwest Native American art is in the spotlight at the Washington State History Museum right now, and it’s looking more innovative than ever. The 7th annual “In the Spirit” exhibit is up in the galleries for a couple of weeks, highlighted this Saturday by the annual market and festival of Native dancers, musicians, storytellers and artisans in the plaza outside. New this year for the “In the Spirit” festival is free admission to all exhibits at the museum, including the Native art show by the same name.
“Festival participants and families will have an opportunity to experience these cultural traditions, purchase fine art and jewelry, and support Pacific Northwest Native American artists,” said WSHM director Jennifer Kilmer in a recent press release.
Both festival and exhibit have new and familiar work. The festival, which runs 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, features regulars like the Chief Leschi School drum and dance group, the Alaska Kuteeyaa Dancers and the House of Welcome Longhouse dancers, as well as newcomers Tahuri Mai Maori dance group from New Zealand, the Tac Town Singers and alt-rock duo Scatter Their Own from the South Dakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Exhibit awards will be presented at 5 p.m.
This year, though, it’s not just the outside festival that’s free. For the first time the museum will also be free all day, including the art exhibit “In the Spirit.” Compact yet varied, the exhibit includes 30 works juried from around 60 submissions by WSHM head of collections Lynette Miller and two Native American art experts, Portland Art Museum’s Deana Dartt and Washington State University’s Michael Holloman. This year the works are a great mix of styles and media, speaking to both good curating and an ever more vibrant Native art community.
Among the best work is the weaving. Bernice Akamine (a Hawaiian artist, for the first time) offers two goosefeather bowls; in the one layering the feathers smoothly over the wire-and-bead base, in the other tufting them out like a startled chickadee; both in warm hues of red and yellow. Two cedar bark capes stand out; one by Patti Puhn (Squaxin Island) combining patterns of red and brown sinew with abalone buttons and a gorgeous cedar rosette like a Chanel piece.
Paper works dominate in a variety of media. The Best in Show winner is a huge charcoal drawing by young Yakama man Toma Mark Villa – a tossing fishing boat mid-catch, lyrical in its delicately shaded emotions and culturally intriguing, hung on a huge Japanese scroll. More Japanese influences from Jerry Laktonen (Alutiiq), whose “Fukushima Wallpaper” details smoothly-swimming fish in hues of salmon, blithely taking their glowing radioactivity onwards. More mutant fish for Charles Bloomfield (Pyramid Lake Paiute) in a beautifully-executed etching of a genetically modified salmon, its gaping eyehole sucking in the background of cherry blossoms from radiant gold water.
Contemporary sculpture and cultural philosophy mix in Bloomfield’s fishing net (an empty plastic weave of medicine vials) and spear (a slightly more hopeful weapon of wound computer cables, prodding into an IT future). Terresa White, meanwhile, uses the traditional medium of masks to explore culture division in “Owl Pair,” masks finely sculpted from clay to look like driftwood and with only one half covered by feather sprays and face paint – the other with eye narrowed in suspicion.
“In The Spirit” festival runs 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Aug. 11, free. “In the Spirit” exhibit is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through Aug. 26. Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. 888-BE-THERE, washingtonhistory.org