San Francisco

San Francisco

Various Venues, San Francisco

The Lowie Museum of Anthropology at The University of California, Berkeley, usually mounts one major show of ethnic art each year. That they chose Northwest Coast art this year may not have had any connection with other shows in the area, but the fact is that there were a number of excellent exhibitions of potlatch and totem art held in universities and city museums from Berkeley to Fairbanks. Some were special shows, some were permanent. Of them, the Lowie show was by far the most comprehensive, despite its being the one farthest removed from the source. It had, of course, borrowed widely from other collections while the others had relied mainly upon their own.

Nothing equals an 8000 mile reconnaissance tour of the Pacific Northwest, by camper and boat, visiting galleries, museums and source areas, to make one fully appreciate the Herculean task of presenting an exhibition like the one at the Lowie. Through the assistance of the California Alumni Foundation and the Committee of Arts and Lectures it is the most extensive show of Northwest Coast art offered in California for many years. It was important enough to rate an excellent catalog written by Drs. Michael J. Harner and Albert Elsasser of U. C.’s Department of Anthropology. Alex Nicoloff, sculptor and senior artist of the department, balanced special knowledge with imagination in installing the exhibits to excite as well as inform the viewer.

By employing a series of photographs taken by Edward Curtis around 1915, Nicoloff partially illuminated the environment of the artists and their patrons, although perhaps “patrons and their artists” would be more accurate phrasing here. The special society that promoted much of this art, through the potlatch ceremony and totem genealogy, developed a patron-artist relationship much like that in Europe prior to and during the Renaissance.

As with other primitive arts, there is a strange urgency to these works, whether carved, painted or woven or a combination of all three processes. Skill, vitality and invention are compounded to an extraordinary degree, and the mystic power of tribal lore seems to have actually seized the artist to get itself expressed rather than the reversed procedure we generally accept. The masks, rattles, cloaks and implements were profoundly significant to the cultures in which they were used, and the delight with which they were brought forth is overwhelmingly evident. One would think the Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl and Nootka artists were as well fulfilled as any who ever lived.

The same urgent vitality pulsates through the works chosen by the Thomas Burke Memorial Museum on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Like the Lowie exhibition, it was up for the “long summer,” and one regrets that so many visitors seeing the one will not be able to see the other.

The University of Alaska Art Museum on the Fairbanks campus, one of the lenders to the Lowie exhibit, included Alaskan Eskimo art in its summer show, with a very small nod toward the Hudson Bay Eskimo. But its main emphasis was on the Potlatch People and its collection of Tsimshian Button Blankets (Hudson Bay trade blankets decorated with colored flannel with design outlined with pearl-shell buttons, to be worn on ceremonial occasions) is outstanding. The museum facility is small; the exhibits were crowded. Specialization in one area at a showing would be an improvement. But, since this is still something of an outpost where even the modestly modern buildings fail to dispel the frontier atmosphere, no fair-minded person would object—even to those hallway exhibitions which resemble curio shops. Visitors streamed steadily through the museum, obviously interested.

The new little Museum of Northern British Columbia at Prince Rupert should not come as a surprise, but it does. Prince Rupert lies at the mouth of the Skeena River, the legendary River of the Mists which drains an area historically rich in tribal art of the Northwest Coast. The museum was opened in 1958, in celebration of the 100th birthday of British Columbia and as a permanent memorial of the Centennial by the people of Prince Rupert. Its varied exhibits include some reference to local industry but are mainly devoted to ethnic arts, especially those of the Pacific Northwest. In common with the Lowie Museum the best things in the show are three totem poles in front of the building. One is a copy of the famous Wolf pole and was carved by Chief Charles Dudoward of Port Simpson, B. C., as a Centennial project. The original belonged to a chief of the Wolf Clan at Gitlakadamix on the upper Naas River. The other two are Haida carvings, one of them unique in that a flowering vine is featured in the genealogy along with two grizzly bears. The Lowie patio exhibit (permanent) is also a Haida pole.

It is in the dusty hamlets in the upper Skeena River country about 200 miles inland from Prince Rupert that one comes face to face with the last great stands of totem poles, some proudly erect, some staggering and tottering in the weather, some face downward in the grass, in villages still inhabited. Efforts are being made to save as many as possible, and leading the movement is the little town of Hazelton, formerly known as Gitanmaks.

At Hazelton is the last of the museums to be discussed here, since Vancouver and Victoria are already well known and both are lenders to the Lowie exhibition. The Hazelton Museum is called the Skeena Treasure House, an apt name since it has eliminated the miscellaneous non-essential bric-a-brac and is all Indian. The building itself, a replica of a “long house,” is designed to house the arts of the Tsmishian peoples of Northwestern B. C. It contains the work of the Nishka, Gitksan, Haida, Kwakiutl and Carrier people, collected from the villages of Kispiox, Glen Vowel, Kitamaat, Kitsequecla, Moricetwon, Kitwancool, Kitwanga, Hagwilget, Kitamuclo and the now abandoned villages of Kuldo and Kisegass. The 1965 exhibition of Button Blankets is second only to that of the University of Alaska. And the exhibition “sitters” are Indians from local tribes, proud of their heritage, and well informed although fiercely jealous of their art traditions—hence inclined to take issue with attributions.

It is here, on location, that one can fully appreciate the task of museum directors and their staff artists when they undertake an exhibition of the magnitude of the Lowie show. Much of this art is born of the magnificent splendors of the potlatch and burial ceremonies of a century ago, now closely controlled by the Canadian government (since they posed an economic burden upon many families). To confine such items in glass cases is to destroy their very reasons for being.

Yet confinement is not the criticism here. Rather, it is the general complaint often voiced, deploring the oversight of anthropologists and collectors in not seeking the identity of those artists who influenced the progress of their craft. Many of these artifacts were collected recently enough that such identity could have been made with little effort. Now the viewer is left wondering who, after having been informed as to what, when, where and why.

E. M. Polley