By Don Decker
The magic of “Changing Hands” is in the laborious craftsmanship that characterizes nearly every work in the show. The selected artifacts are sensitively and meticulously rendered. Yet this is far more than a “crafts show.” The theme of Native pride, communicated sometimes with humor and often with rancor, melds the individual pieces into a cohesive whole.
Curators sometimes separate Native art from work done by anyone else, contemporary from traditional, or crafts from other art for no higher purpose than categorization. But arbitrary labeling limits acceptance and understanding. Isolating or categorizing artists can create a chasm where a bridge should be. This show, while selective and restrictive, provides a vehicle for the meaningful communication of Native artists’ ideas and ideals, and it highlights the commonality among contemporary artists.
This traveling exhibition, which recently arrived at the Anchorage Museum, is a showcase for talented Native artisans (residing west of the Mississippi in Alaska, Canada, Hawaii and Northwest Canada). The contributing artists are respectful of their heritage and traditions but have chosen to explore more modern materials or innovative methods.
The collection is a full cup of blended tea, an extensive and eclectic mix of style and content. It looks like a Native art show but not a theme show.
Works of prominent Alaska artists are interspersed throughout the collection. It’s an opportunity for Alaska artists to directly compare and view their own work in the context of a national review. By any visual art criteria, they hold their own. Those familiar with Alaska art and artists will recognize and be drawn to the home-cooked entrees.
Some of the artists rely more on the motifs and manners of antiquity, while others are influenced by more modern movements in art history.
Judging by the collegiate backgrounds of many of the artists (as enumerated in the show’s accompanying catalog), their artistic sensibilities have been greatly affected by the academic world, resulting in more avant-garde approaches.
Historically used materials such as bead, bone, fur and wood are found in many of the pieces but utilized in inventive ways. What makes the collection more appealing is the inclusion of recently developed means of expression, including the use of plastic resins, glass, found objects, digital photography and video performance. The media and techniques are applied to frank and meaningful social commentary.
Puni Kukahiko, a Native Hawaiian, contributed “Lovely Hula Hands,” small sculptures molded from poured chocolate, a personal and social comment regarding the exploited image of the Polynesian woman.
Juanita Pahdopony of Oklahoma constructed “Plains Shield II” from an aluminum hubcap, hinges and tractor clutch springs. Robert Davidson, born in Hydaburg, utilized traditional motifs of the Haida tribe in a large abstract sculpture of aluminum and red epoxy powder.
Yaya (Charles Peter Heit) of British Columbia shows a “Tele Box” made from unusual woods, abalone and brass.
The functional, highly crafted and personalized telephone box was commissioned by a patron. The artist’s commentary on the label is well worth the read.
Eric Robertson of Vancouver, British Columbia, is represented by a relatively large-scale installation entitled “The Hub.” Cast aluminum eulachon (small fish) are suspended on steel bars and combined to form three large panels in an impressive work.
Bently Spang of Montana shows four stages of dried meat hung from commercial pant hangers. The “meat” is made of silicone and reservation dirt.
There is much to see in “Changing Hands.” Some elegant smaller pieces may be lost if a visitor’s goal is to quickly take in the show. There are references and metaphors that require contemplation. Videos and performance tapes will take time to watch, understand and appreciate. While some pieces are bold and direct, many others are subtle.
Most of the works in the show give a refreshing twist to the familiar elements of Native design. The effects of tradition are evident in certain motifs and exemplified by the selection of certain genre like masks. Yet, while most of the work reflects an awareness of things “Native,” the collection is not consistently contemporary. Many examples are strictly decorative or too closely tied to the past to be considered new.
While many of the pieces are conceptual and daring, others, while well-crafted, are so conservative they seem more typical than special. One of the stated objectives of the collection is a “radical repositioning of Native art into the global mainstream of contemporary art.” In that light, the safer pieces are inappropriate to the goal.
This is a significant exhibition of high quality, positioning and defining Native art in its parallel growth with post-modern trends. The varied use of media and technique, the fine craftsmanship and depth of meaning have been combined to form an exhibition that is both exciting for the general public and inspiring to other artists, native or not.
-- Don Decker is an Anchorage artist.