Privileging the Past
Reconstructing History in Northwest Coast ArtBook - 1999
What makes Northwest Coast Native American art authentic? And why, when most of art history is a history of the avant-garde, is tradition so deeply valued by contemporary Native American artists and their patrons? In Privileging the Past , Judith Ostrowitz approaches these questions through a careful consideration of replicas, reproductions, and creative translations of past forms of Northwest Coast dances, ceremonies, masks, painted screens, and houses.
Ostrowitz examines several different art forms--two very different architectural constructions, a dance performance, and modern sculptures and dance paraphernalia--considering their relations to arts of the past. Chief Shakes' Community House has endured, in various forms, at the same site in Wrangell, Alaska, for close to 170 years as an "old style" Tlingit tribal house. The Grand Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization at Hull, Quebec, is constructed as a Native village with an assemblage of replicated houses made by contemporary Native artists, both old and new totem poles, and references to the Northwest Coast landscape. The opening ceremonies of the exhibition Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in October 1991 included a dance program by a group of Native performers from Vancouver Island, B.C., adapting traditional elements for a long and complex theatrical presentation. Finally, artists such as Art Thompson, Beau Dick, Doug Cranmer, Robert Davidson, Susan Point, and Jim Schoppert produce vital and lively art--masks, rattles, prints, and paintings are considered here--that utilizes inherited subject matter and conventionalized stylistic devices. Ostrowitz finds that these replicas and performances function as do most other works of art, referencing history in a highly selective manner.
Ostrowitz draws on an extensive body of interviews she conducted with tribal leaders, artists, and artisans long known and highly respected in both Native and non-Native venues. Throughout the book, we hear their voices--members of the Alfred, Cranmer, Hunt, Tallio, and Webster families, and many other individuals--as they relate their responses to the modern adaptation of their cultural heritage.
Privileging the Past explores intellectual issues raised by postmodern theory, supported by detailed studies of projects that will interest a broad audience of students, historians, museum-goers, and those intrigued by Native American art and cultural history.