North American Indian Printmakers
May 28 – October 26, 2003
Helen Christou Gallery
Curator: Curtis Joseph Collins
Featuring work from the Native American Studies Collection, and The U of L Art Collection.
This exhibition features silkscreen prints on paper created during the 1970s, which have been selected from the Native Studies Department and the U of L Art Collection. Among those artists from the Northwest Coast and Eastern Woodlands are Calvin Hunt, Tony Hunt, Goyce Kakegamic, Norval Morrisseau, Earl Muldoe, Russell Smith and Art Sterritt.
NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN PRINTMAKERS
This exhibition features a selection of silkscreen prints on paper from the Native American Studies Department and the University of Lethbridge Art Collection. These works created during the 1970s represent a critical period in the history of art in Canada, as individuals of Indian ancestry were reforming tribal identities within a larger North American cultural milieu. Over the past forty years artists from the Northwest Coast and Eastern Woodlands have played a pivotal role in the transferal and adaptation of historic aesthetic practices into contemporary art traditions such as silkscreen printing.
The production of art among Native peoples had ebbed to an all time low during the early twentieth century as a direct result of racist political, social, and cultural directives enforced by the American and Canadian governments for almost a hundred years. In Canada, an 1884 revision to the Indian Act outlawed countless ceremonies including the Potlatch common to the Kwakwaka’wakw, Gitksan, Nuu-Chah-Nulth, and Haida peoples, as well as the rituals held by Ojibway and Cree shamanistic orders. However Native communities effectively resisted this state-sanctioned brutality and carried on their respective social and spiritual activities in secret from federal authorities. By 1950, when the Government of Canada repealed the most oppressive sections of the Indian Act, Native artists had already begun to strengthen the tenuous visual ties to their collective past. Through processes of imitation and experimentation that flourished from the 1960s onward Calvin Hunt, Art Sterritt, Earl Muldoe, Russell Smith, Norval Morrisseau, Goyce Kakegamic, and Tony Hunt contributed to a postcolonial artistic emergence among the First Nations.
The work entitled Tlingit Raven and Bear House Front Design by Calvin Hunt (b. 1956), located on your far left, is typical of the multiples produced by artists from Northwest Coast tribes, as they often turned to the nineteenth-century painted house fronts for inspiration. During the 1970s Hunt trained at the Arts of the Raven Gallery in Victoria, which was co-founded by his second cousin Tony Hunt, and it served as a critical site for the production of carving, jewelry, and prints through the 1980s. Calvin Hunt is of Kwakwaka’wakw and Nuu-Chah-Nulth ancestry from Vancouver Island, however, he looked beyond his immediate tribal affiliations to historic graphic art created by the Tlingit of the Alaskan Pan Handle. Such an adaptation of the Raven and Bear crests maintains the dominant broad black form lines and curvilinear red accents of its architectonic antecedent. The printing technique employed by Hunt can be traced back to seventeenth-century Japanese stenciling on paper, which then served as the model for the silkscreen or serigraph editions produced in England at the turn of the twentieth century. Contemporary artists employ a range of photographic, varnish, and paper stenciling methods to create screens for each colour field. Using a squeegee, the printmaker pushes the designated coloured ink through each tightly stretched rectangular screen of silk. The technical challenge of producing works such as Tlingit Raven and Bear House Front Design, number seventy-one of one hundred, is for the artist to ensure that the black and red inked areas are in perfect alignment every time. Ultimately it was the precision of form and richness of colour afforded by silkscreen printmaking that made this medium ideal for Hunt and his contemporaries to attempt the translation of an exacting heraldic language onto paper. The modest retail price of such multiples, as compared to painting and sculpture, also meant that they appealed to a broader contingent of art collectors.
The adoption of a looser more narrative style among Northwest Coast printmakers is best illustrated by Art Sterritt’s (b.1948) Ne-walpsee or “my house” of 1973 on your immediate left. A giant eagle gripping a killer whale is depicted by this artist, who is from the Eagle clan and also known as Myanxa, in the midst of flight. The tiny human riding on the killer whale’s back, which symbolizes Sterritt’s wife’s clan, is their son while the figure curled up inside the great mammal is their unborn daughter. Such fluid action in this family portrait set against a stark white background contrasts the intensely compacted animal forms that covered the entire surface of carvings, paintings, and weavings by Sterritt’s Gitksan ancestors. Myanxa and his brother-in-law Delgamuukw (b. 1936), alias Earl Muldoe, were early members of ‘Ksan, a historical village, museum, and art school that opened in 1970 near the former nineteenth-century village of Gitanmaax in northern British Columbia. Muldoe’s 1978 Beaver serigraph on your immediate right suggests a family crest that has been pulled away from its sculptural origins on totem poles, and flattened into a solitary figure which floats on the page. Such an innovative treatment was not uncommon among ‘Ksan artists who not only maintained historic practices, but forged new directions in graphic arts that evoke a profoundly changed late twentieth-century tribal circumstance. In 1977 a group of artists from across British Columbia formed the Northwest Coast Indian Artists Guild, as a means of ensuring a consistently high standard of print production and to develop an international market for their work. Russell Smith (b. 1950), also known by his Kwakwaka’wakw name Awasatlas, was a member of the Guild which released a limited edition series of silkscreen prints in 1977 and 1978. Awasatlas’s 1977 Thunderbird and Sisiutl would have required four separate screens to create the black, red, green, and yellow inked multiple that celebrates two fantastic beings common to many Northwest Coast belief systems. Sisiutl, a three-headed sea creature, is the protector of houses where supernatural beings reside and has the capacity to turn fear-ridden people into stone. Brightly coloured masks with elaborate moving parts created by Kwakwaka’wakw artists in the late 1800s depict the Sisiutl’s humanoid face encased within a larger dragon-like head, and Smith’s print serves as a portrait of a fully opened mask. If quoting the distant past within an altered present-day context can be considered as central to the postmodern condition, then these prints by Hunt, Sterritt, Muldoe, and Smith represent the nascence of such a revisionist cultural moment in North America.
The reconsiderations of pre-twentieth-century tribal art traditions carried out by contemporary Native artists often went beyond regional exchanges. Norval Morrisseau (b.1932) of the Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek nation located north of Thunder Bay, Ontario achieved international recognition during the 1960s for his paintings of legendary Ojibway beings such as the Thunderbird, Mishupeshu, and Windego. Much of Morrisseau’s early work was inspired by the incised birch bark scroll images created by members of the Medewiwin, a centuries-old shaman society among the Anishinaabek peoples. However, Morrisseau also looked to nineteenth-century Northwest Coast art via illustrated publications, which undoubtedly influenced his development of primary and secondary colour pools surrounded by broad black form lines that delineate people, animals, and supernatural creatures. Such a graphic painting style was seamlessly transformed into print-based imagery, and the artist issued his earliest serigraphs through the Native-run Triple-K Studio in 1973. The five works on the wall directly behind you were produced in 1979, and are part of a limited edition of three-hundred and fifty portfolios issued by Toronto’s Methuen Publications that include the book and carrying case located on the plexi-glass covered plinths. By the late 1970s Morrisseau, who is a self-taught artist, had augmented his palette with a range of pastel shades, and in this highly involved print series he investigates close-up portrait views. Using turquoise, burgundy, tangerine, blue, red, yellow, purple, green, orange, brown, and black inks in Shaman Conjuring Speech and Shaman and Apprentice, Morrisseau creates a concentrated interplay between positive and negative space that is unique to this medium for him. Composition With Loons and Young Gulls Watching are nearer to his painting style, and the fish portrayed inside the rightmost loon is typical of the Anishnaabek artist’s x-ray technique which he also adapted from Medewiwin-based imagery. The elaborate loon headdress worn by the shaman in Dawn offers further evidence of a hybrid quality in Morrisseau’s art, as this particular feature is derived from ancient Mayan stele figures to generate a portrait that alludes to humanity’s origins.
The Ojibway and Cree peoples that have occupied the Eastern Woodlands since time immemorial share numerous political, social, and cultural values. In the 1970s a group of artists who followed Morrisseau’s artistic lead would come to be known as the Woodland School. The Kakegamic brothers Joshim, Henry, and Goyce received direct instruction from their brother-in-law Morrisseau, when he lived on the Sandy Lake Reserve in Northwestern Ontario with his new wife Harriet. She taught Norval how to translate his Anishnaabek name Copper Thunderbird into Cree syllabics as evident in the pencil signature on each of the aforementioned prints. In 1973 Joshim and Henry Kakegamic opened the Triple-K Studio in nearby Red Lake, Ontario, and over the next decade this Native artists’ co-operative played a key role in popularizing an emerging Woodland style via moderately priced serigraphs. Goyce Kakegamic’s (b.1948) Shaking Tent of circa 1979, located in the center of the wall above the stairs to your left, was among the limited edition silkscreen prints produced and sold by the Triple-K Studio. This artist, who is a member of the Nishnawbe Aski nation, depicts a shaking tent ceremony which has been used by Cree shaman for centuries to conjure up links with the spirit world. The seated figures on both sides of the moving structure have thus achieved a communion with the dichotomy of life, as symbolized by their linear connection to the two divided circles. Using earth coloured inked shapes delineated by undulating black lines, Kakegamic fashions a mnemonic-like language similar to that found on the Medewiwin birch bark scrolls mentioned earlier. In the final stage of the printmaking process the artist signs his/her name in pencil on the successful editions, and Kakegamic used both Cree syllabics and the English language alphabet on Shaking Tent to indicate his approval of number twenty-eight of forty-five. The ever widening distribution of such spiritually-charged art brought scorn upon Cree and Ojibway artists from local Elders and shaman, for they considered it sacrilege to show these images in public. Such internal cultural tensions were played out on Indian reservations across Canada during the 1970s, as the individuals under consideration thus far struggled to envision the new realities of tribal life for a global audience.
The two prints by Tony Hunt (b.1942), which flank Shaking Tent on the wall above the stairs, offer a unique perspective on the ambiguous terrain that re-invigorated North American Indian art from the 1960s onward. Hunt’s Baptism Mural of 1977 to your left was originally designed as a carved and painted red cedar panel for the Canadian Catholic Art Collection. The kneeling Christ child in this subsequent silkscreen print is being anointed by John the Baptist, who points a raven rattle at the thunderbird hovering in the sky above. Hence an ancient Christian narrative from the Holy Bible has been imbued with a Native aesthetic sensibility, as Hunt renders this scene using a system of interlocking ovoids and u-shapes based on Northwest Coast heraldic vocabularies. The combination of black, red, and orange inks by the artist also marks new ground, for the latter colour is foreign to the historic carvings, paintings, and weavings that he studied in his youth. Tony Hunt apprenticed with his father Henry and grandfather Mungo Martin at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, where he learned the value of copying as a prerequisite means for achieving autonomous creative ability. In 1969 he and John Livingston opened the Arts of the Raven Gallery to train Northwest Coast artists and promote their work. Hunt’s Tlingit Raven Dance Screen print to the right of Kakegamic’s work is based on an interior wall divider from a nineteenth-century clan house that stood in Klukwan, Alaska. His 1977 graphic reproduction of this architectural element, complete with a central circular doorway that performers passed through, mimics the original’s black, red, and blue-green colour scheme. He also maintains the intricate internal faces situated within the Raven crest’s eyes, wings, and tail feathers. And yet Hunt has stepped outside his own Kwakwaka’wakw tribal heritage in an effort to extend Tlingit artistic traditions beyond their historic confines via the limited edition silkscreen print on paper.
Perhaps a key to understanding this exhibition is an appreciation for the new inter-tribal exchanges that occurred among Indian artists across North America in the late twentieth century, as Calvin Hunt, Art Sterritt, Earl Muldoe, Russell Smith, Norval Morrisseau, Goyce Kakegamic, and Tony Hunt sought to consolidate the cultural strengths of the First Nations. The Arts of the Raven Gallery, Northwest Coast Indian Artists Guild, ‘Ksan, the Woodland School, and Triple-K Studio are but a few of the Native collectives that gained prominence in Canada during the 1970s, when their members and adherents broke into art markets worldwide. Having absorbed Western artistic practices ranging from painting on canvas to printmaking on paper, the individuals represented here contested the Government of Canada’s prolonged effort to erase tribal identities through their imagery that brings the past forward. The limited edition silkscreen print proved to be ideally suited for the production and dissemination of such a creative resurgence among artists from Northwest Coast and Eastern Woodlands.
- Curtis Joseph Collins, Associate Curator
A special thank-you is extended to Alfred Young Man of the Native American Studies Department for his assistance with this exhibition.