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Native American Art and Totem Poles: An Interview with Tracy J. Prince

Many of you are now introduced to the idea of totem poles through the Grade 3 book of Art1st. You have learnt about its symbolic functions, its aesthetics and also asked students to make their own totem poles. Most of these works were also displayed in the annual exhibitions in the schools curated with the help of Art1st mentors.

Today we will feature an interview with Dr. Tracy J. Prince who is a Scholar in Residence (Research Professor) at Portland State University in the United States. Tracy is also an accomplished writer and has done extensive research on the history of Blacks and Native americans. She was part of the Chateau de La Napoule art residency along with me and I had a chance to interact with her about her writings and research. She also did a wonderful art workshop with the kids who were visiting the museum at the Chateau on Native American art and patterns. In this interview she will talk about the Native American art, the relevance of totem poles and contemporary artists who are using totem poles and the aesthetics of Native American art in their works.

 

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Dr. Tracy J. Prince

Premjish: How was your experience with the students in La Napoule teaching Native American Art? What were your objectives?

Tracy:  I wanted to show the children images of Native American art from over 100 years ago to today, so that students could see that Native Americans have been an important part of American history and that thousands of Native artists are active today. I enjoyed teaching them via an interpreter. They were intrigued that I am a descendant of Pocahontas. They seemed very excited to learn about Native Americans.

 

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Children’s workshop with Tracy J. Prince at Chateau de La Napoule

 

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Children’s workshop with Tracy J. Prince at Chateau de La Napoule

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Tracy J. Prince with the kids at the workshop on Native American art

 

Premjish: What is your experience with the Native American Art? (In terms of academics and research and outreach)

Tracy: I’ve taught Native American Art for over a decade. I’ve published about Native art in several of my books on Portland, Oregon’s history. I’m working on a book on Native American Art of Oregon, based upon my research and teaching. In outreach, I’ve advocated with the Portland Art Museum to promote the work of contemporary Native artists (though they still tend to focus on historical Native art), and I’ve given hundreds of talks to civic groups in the US on Native American art.

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A collection of hand-woven Navajo blankets. Courtesy: Tracy J. Prince

 

Premjish: In the Art1st grade books we have a chapter dealing with Totem poles. You have researched a lot on totem poles. Could you give our teachers a brief overview about its functions, visual appearance and relevance.

Tracy: The most important thing to remember is that totem poles are traditional only for tribes in part of the Pacific Northwest. In the US, totem poles were made only in parts of Alaska and a small part of Washington state, and in Canada, totem poles were made only in the province of British Columbia. The Pacific Northwest areas where carving was/is most intense is a rain forest where enormous evergreen trees grow that are excellent for making totem poles—most are made from western red cedar. There are over 500 Native tribes in the US. Less than a dozen of those tribes have totem poles as a tradition. Throughout the world, totem poles have captured the imagination and have come to stand for all Native people of the US and Canada. But in reality, totem poles represent only a small part of a few western tribes in Canada and the US. They capture the imagination for good reason. Totem poles are carved of wood. They are beautiful, grand, and visually striking. They are usually enormous poles carved from a single tree. Totem poles can be found in many museums around the world. Their function was/is to celebrate a person’s achievements, to honor someone still living, to praise a great miracle, to serve as a funeral marker, to tell a tribal legend, and for many other functions. The icons carved onto the pole differ from tribe to tribe. Common imagery includes: a raven (a trickster figure—tricky, greedy, mischievous), eagle, bear, salmon, whale, wolf, frog, and mythical creatures such as the thunderbird and Dzunukwa. Dzunukwa is often depicted with pursed lips. The legend is that when children hear “who, who” calling in the forest, they should run so that Dzunukwa doesn’t capture them. This legend helped keep children from wandering into the vast wilderness of thick forests that these tribes were surrounded by.

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Mask of Dzunukwa face (Museum of Anthropology at UBC), Courtesy: Wikipedia and the Museum

 

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Dzunukwa holding tináa (copper shields) outside the Burke Museum of the University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Courtesy: Wikipedia.

Premjish: Do communities still make totem poles and believe in its symbolic quality?

Tracy: All tribal communities that made totem poles historically are still making totem poles today. Many Native people (in Canada the preferred terms are: aboriginal, indigenous, or First Nations) were Christianized and many of their traditional beliefs and practices were forbidden until even as recently as the 1950s. However, even with attempts to decimate cultures, many Native people still place great value on the symbolism of the imagery on totem poles. All tribes place great value on the cultural importance of the tree, taken from Native land, representing stories that have been handed down in that tribe.

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Image of a village with totem poles in Alaska. Courtesy: Tracy J. Prince

Premjish: Could you tell us more about the contemporary artists who are working in this visual idiom? Especially abstract, geometric patterns, etc.

Tracy: Wendy Red Star (Crow tribe) satirizes and critiques stereotypical ideas about Native Americans. Sometimes using pop art style, with an underlying critique, she grapples with American history and the present story of Native Americans. She wants viewers to see that Native people are not just people of the past.

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Peelatchiwaaxpaásh/ Medicine Crow (Raven) with notations from Wendy Red Star’s research.  Reproduction of image of historically significant, famous, iconic 19th century Crow leader, altered by the artist with red pen notations explaining the symbolic significance of each element of his garb and the artifacts he holds. Courtesy: Wikipedia and Wendy Red Star

And she plays with traditional Native American geometric shapes to explore contemporary art.

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Wendy Red Star, Family Portraits, Courtesy: Wendy Red Star

I like the work of Marcus Cadman (Navajo and Kickapoo tribes). He has strong regional recognition and growing national recognition. I’m especially intrigued by his paintings that use discarded bingo cards from the Navajo reservation as the background. Bingo games are pervasive throughout Native American tribes. So, he is anchoring the viewer to contemporary life on the Navajo reservation by using bingo cards.

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Website of Marcus Cadman

(To see Cadman’s works, see his website http://www.marcuscadman.com/carousel.php?galleryID=109931)

I wrote about Pat Courtney Gold (Wasco Chinook) who does basketry. Her designs are quite traditional and are meant to honor the past rather than critique it.

(See the book online https://books.google.co.in/books?id=dCYnDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA95&dq=%22lillian+pitt%22+notable+women&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=%22lillian%20pitt%22%20&f=false)

 

 

                                                                      Pat Courtney Gold

 

Premjish: Is it always necessary that Native American artists always work in their own native visual style?

Tracy: In the 1960s and 1970s, Fritz Scholder and T. C. Cannon famously exploded the idea that Native American art must reverentially harken back to the past artistic language.

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“Self Portrait in the Studio” by the artist T. C. Cannon. Courtesy: Wikipedia

They used abstraction (Scholder) and pop art (Cannon) to play with, deconstruct, and analyze Native American art. Many contemporary artists, such as James Lavadour (Umatilla), don’t feel obliged to paint typical Native American subjects. He paints abstractions of the landscapes near his home on the Umatilla Reservation.

(Read the article on these by clicking here)

Premjish: Could you tell us what are the new interventions happening in the art of totem pole creation?

 Tracy: Being able to carve in the totem pole style and with particular figures is considered the privilege of certain tribes. These privileges are passed down through generations. It is considered cultural appropriation when a Native American person carves a totem pole but is not a member of a tribe where totem poles were carved. Rick Bartow (Wiyot and Yurok) has a fantastic piece at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC that shows a modern interpretation of the totem pole but is not trying to replicate traditional styles. He lives in Oregon with ancestry from  California tribes. So he is not from a tribe where totem pole carving is traditional. Bartow’s spectacular sculpture, “We Were Always Here,” was erected in 2012 at the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum.

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Photograph of a work by Rick Bartow, part of an exhibit at the gardens of the White House; url properties list title as “Cedar Mill Pole, 1997”

Bartow says that they aren’t totem poles, but “pole sculptures.” “We didn’t want a totem pole. There is a predetermined idea of what that is going to look like, a built-in iconography. There are traditions. It reflects family stories, lineages. I have no lineage right to that … and it would be stupid of me, who is not Haida or Tlingit … to pretend like I was all of the sudden just for this job. It would look like hell, frankly.”

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Rick Bartow, We Were Always Here, 2012, carved old growth western red cedar, 324″ x 31″ x 15″

Bartow’s work explores a new sculptural form and iconography to delve into contemporary interpretations of Native American art.

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Rick Bartow with his paintings at Froelick Gallery, Portland, Oregon. Photo credit: Wilder Schmaltz

 

 

 

Tracy J. Prince, Ph.D. is a Scholar in Residence (research professor) at Portland State University in the United States. She is the author of four books: Culture Wars in British Literature: Multiculturalism and National IdentityNotable Women of Portland, two other histories of Oregon, and is currently working on a book on Native American Art of Oregon. She has taught for two decades, published about, and given hundreds of public lectures on Native American art and literature. Read more about her: https://works.bepress.com/tracy-prince/

 

Mischief in Tuscany by Nancy Shroyer Howard

 

In ~1338, Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted a large fresco entitled ‘The Effects of Good Government in the City and Countryside’. In 2008, Nancy Shroyer Howard, a museum editor at the time, published Mischief in Tuscany, an interesting take on the famous Italian masterpiece.

The book follows the adventures of Cinta, a white striped Sienese pig. Nancy found this pig on his way to town with his master in the fresco, and from there, her imagination sprung wild. She has carefully zoomed into details of the painting, as seen through the eyes of Cinta, as he runs wild across the Countryside and City creating chaos and scandal.

The original paintings are displayed alongside its counterpart ‘The Effects of Bad Governance’, like a visual 14th century Dos and Don’ts list. Mischief in Tuscany brings alive the hypothetical of a good governmental decision whilst drawing attention to the intricacies of the painting. The pig himself has a ball of a time- scaring brides, splattering eggs, stealing cheese and dancing with the horrified town girls. The narrative keeps young readers engrossed in the (600+-year-old, shhh) pictures, and makes its adult reader silently snigger at the cheeky cut-outs.

It is a pleasure to hold this wonderful painting in one’s hand and to see the details of a Mideaval Siena up close. This is the kind of book that can turn into a variety of activities from memory games to imaginative explorations of paintings during the next visit to the museum.

Likla
Writer at Art1st

PS. There’s very little about this book to be found about the book online (though there are volumes about the painting itself). If you’ve read the book and have a perspective to share, do let us know.

Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved, illustrated by Charlotte Pardi

 

Like many children’s books, Cry, Heart, But Never Break began in reality. Glenn Ringtved takes on the difficult subject of death and loss. These were his mother’s words shortly before her passing, and these were the words with which he tempered the souls of his children.

The story begins bleakly, as grandmother lies sick with an inky cloaked Death her imminent visitor. The children recognize Death immediately and, (bless them!) in complete innocence, they offer him cup after cup of the strongest coffee they can make, to keep him away from their grandmother. But Glenn’s Death is kind. 

“Some people say Death’s heart is as dead and black as a piece of coal, but that is not true…”

Death drinks every cup offered as he tells them a story. It is a story of Grief and Sorrow personified, who find their counterparts in Delight and Joy. Compassionately, he shows them the duality of life and death, and darkness and light, and though the children don’t fully understand, they begin to see.

“”No,” Nels said. “Life is moving on. This is how it must be.””

This moving and extremely quotable Danish book is made complete by Charlotte Pardi‘s illustrations. In using watercolours and pencils, the paintings are soft but saturated with emotion. What captures the eye is the depth of character in each expression. On the outset, her Death is the typical European Grim Reaper, but one that leaves his scythe outside the door. She draws his face as a human face and not a skull. It is not a face of fear, but of compassion and sorrow in balance.

Death is unbearably difficult for an adult, so how does one go about explaining it to a child? When’s the right time? Instead of tackling the matter, some ignore it. Others turn it into a metaphor, and others yet, sugar-coat it, until sickly sweet, it remains undealt with. Glenn’s tale offers a way- for the heart to grieve and cry, but not break.

 

 

Likla
Writer at Art1st

PS. Our library is always growing. If you have any recommendations for gems like this one, do let us know!

#GrædBlotHjerte

 

eric by Shaun Tan

 

If you aren’t familiar with the works of Shaun Tan, then I’m glad you’ve chanced across this post! This Australian illustrator-writer-creator-imaginer has an uncanny knack to take the mundane, flip it around and present it back to the world in the form of breathtaking picture books.

eric is from Tales of Outer Suburbia, an anthology that deals with the concepts of ‘otherness’ and ‘belonging’. The story, whence read without the images, is that of a foreign exchange student with strange mannerisms that are simply chalked down to ‘it must be a cultural thing.’

eric, in form, is a thumb-sized alien-esque creature, lean, dark and absolutely adorable. His travelling bags are made of acorn shells and his prefered bedroom is the kitchen pantry. The eager young narrator seeks to show him the wonders of zirs* home and suburbia, and when there is a lack of understanding and communication, falls back to the comfort of ‘it must be a cultural thing.’

The narrative stays unassuming of eric’s opinion, as often is when faced with an unknown culture. The illustrations, on the other hand, make the reader fall more and more in love with the little curious creature. In unravelling the transparent metaphor, the reader can replace the figure of the shadowy alien, with a human from another culture and re-read this miniature eric-sized book of heartache.

Shaun Tan’s illustrations are intricate and detailed as always. Seemingly everyday objects are imbued with strange meanings and contexts; for example, a simple teacup turns into eric’s bed. An observant reader can spend hours poring over the pages and will always find a new and enthralling detail.

 

* Gender neutral narrators get their gender neutral pronouns too. Ze= he/she; zirs = hers/his, etc.

Likla
Writer at Art1st

PS. A starting point for discussion can be this question: Why is eric written small letters? How does this contribute to the ‘otherness’ of this book?

PPS. While looking through the illustrations, look out for repeated objects and different perspectives of the same thing. What do you learn about eric’s everyday life and his hosts’ world?

#ShaunTanFan!

Art1st at IADEA’s Art Educators Conference

 

The Art1st Team ended their work-week at IADEA’s super-fun two-day Art and Design Educators Conference. Perhaps, one of the first of it’s kind, the Conference saw Art Educators from schools across India, as well as several Art Education enthusiasts. The programme included talks by several prominent faces in the field, including, Deborah Thiagarajan of DakshinaChitra and Himanshu from the Dharavi Art Room, and Art Educators who are Artists too, like Harry Hancock, Dr. Manjiri Thakoor and Nilanjana Nandi.

Our very own Vanita Pai led the room down a walk through the history of Modern Art in India. Originally part of the award-winning publication ‘Eye Spy Indian Art‘, this designer art game contain fragments of history in the form of famous artworks, headlines and dates. The participants are given a chance to contemplate these historical fragments before they are asked to put together their own version of a timeline.

Hosted in the beautiful Piramal Museum of Art, each table was deemed a group, and with the roles reversed, the erstwhile teachers had a chance to be students again. The room was engulfed in noise, activity and colour! We watched as individuals who’d never met before, came together to agree upon one plan of action. Some focused on the division between political, cultural and art histories while others juxtaposed these timelines and created patterns that broke from linearity. The session ended with very exciting picture taking.

The Conference was beautifully organized and the schedule ran on an impeccable timing (Thank you Sara Vetteh!) Each table was provided with brand-new art supplies, and each lecturer made sure to pepper their talks with activities. This kept everyone in the room involved in the proceedings. As the first of its kind, the conference was a great start and we hope to see many more participants as well as involved speakers with each passing year.

 

Likla
Writer at Art1st
#bestWorkdayEver #ArtThroughTheDay