“To Uncle Al, who imagined I could be an artist”
Rob Gonsalves is an artist of illusion, and in his ‘Imagine a…’ series serve to remind us of how important imagination is to childhood.
Reminiscent of Escher, Gonsalves’ paintings, begin wherever the eye falls and morphs into something completely different as the eye travels further into each painting. The very cover of the Imagine a Day is a self-fulfiling prophesy, as a family of young sand-castle builders seem to create a life-sized castle.
Gonsalves’ surrealist play on perspectives makes the step into fantasy seem effortless. Sarah L. Thompson textual accompaniment gives young readers a cue to the phantasmagorical possibilities of each work.
imagine a day…
… when the edge of the map
is only the beginning
of what we can explore.
On several pages, the characters seem to be travelling into the painting, or conversely leaping out of the pages. An inspired young reader can be prompted to follow along, curiously.
Writer at Art1st
PS: If you run out of pages, fear not, for you find several collections online, like here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And she plays with traditional Native American geometric shapes to explore contemporary art.
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.
(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.
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.
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.”
Bartow’s work explores a new sculptural form and iconography to delve into contemporary interpretations of Native American art.
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 Identity, Notable 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/
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.
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.
Throughout this series we have explored how curators have used pre-modern, modern and contemporary art. The category of “art” mainly included sculptures, paintings, videos, photographs, installations, performance art, etc. Even if the sculptures, and paintings belonged to the past they were included in the category of arts or fine arts. But what about forms like patachitras, ivory carving, wood carving, jewelery, pottery, phad paintings, kavads, etc. Why are not they arts? Have you ever thought about this that why are they called folk art/craft and not given the status of art? In the last post we saw how Jyotindra Jain and Dadi Pudumjee curated a show on the picture showmen traditions, masks, puppets, etc. from India which usually do no fall into the ambit of high art? Why is that an artist who is painting in Bengal on a long scroll and carrying it house to house to tell a story not called as an artist and his work not seen as art? Why do we use categories like folk artists and tribal artists to denote their works? We see the high art in museums and galleries, but we collect the craft objects like objects of curiosities at our homes. There are well curated museums for high art, but folk/tribal arts/crafts are always housed in ethnographic museums.
This is a contentious issue in Indian art and art elsewhere. This issue has been addressed by few seminal curators previously, especially by Dr. Jyotindra Jain. In his exhibition Other Masters: Five Contemporary Folk and Tribal Artists of India, curated in the 90s, Dr. Jain takes a different look at this. Usually we are taught to see folk, tribal artists and craftspeople as artists who are stuck in tradition and who are not able to innovate themselves right. Dr. Jain made us see that there are artists who do not want to be part of a tradition and who do not belong to the recognition of the modern art world. They have an identity of their own. We have to respect that and not create the binaries of high art and folk art. Similarly, artist-curator J. Swaminathan has said that we should not treat their artistic expressions as just curious objects, because of their primitive character, instead we should treat them as contemporary expressions. If a patua painter is painting and narrating the story of Indira Gandhi’s death and the destruction of World Trade Towers in his work how is he a primitive artist? His or her expressions, concerns and thoughts are inclined towards the contemporary.
In today’s Art1st’s “The Curator” series we will discuss Annapurna Garimella’s exhibition Vernacular in the Contemporary which opened up this question on the differences between high and folk art, and how can we understand this larger cultural production happening in India, which are situated outside the metropolises.
The Curator #17
Curator: Dr. Annapurna Garimella (Jackfruit Research and Design)
Exhibition: Vernacular in the Contemporary: Working and Working Reflectively, 2010-2011
Venue: Devi Art Foundation
This exhibition used the collection of Anupam and Lekha Poddar of the Devi Art Foundation and also created newly commissioned works by artists who are often categorized as makers of folk, tribal and traditional art. It used a new term called the vernacular to denote this sphere where this cultural production is happening. ‘The exhibition focused on the vernacular and shifts the art historical and institutional terms for understanding and theorizing this cluster of visual art. Moreover, the show foregrounded the diversity and contemporary relevance of vernacular artists’ personas, ideas and concerns through ambitious projects’. This exhibition was the result of extensive field works, correspondences and it also carried out an extensive documentation of these artistic practices.
But why can’t we use terms like folk art, tribal art, and native art anymore. Dr. Garimella has the answer. “Many of the artists are not tribals, so that’s inaccurate.” She says, “If a Madhubani painter uses tubes of paint manufactured in Japan, can you call that process of creating art native? I chose the term vernacular with care. It signifies a traditional art language without the limitations that the terms ‘folk’, ‘tribal’ or ‘native’ have.”
In order to to select the best folk and tribal artists from across the country, Devi Art Foundation and Garimella’s company, Jackfruit Research and Design didn’t go merely by reputation or recommendation. They place public notice was put out in newspapers, announcing a programme in art, much like the way universities seek applications for courses. In addition, suggestions were sought from DAF and colleagues working in art, NGOs in the field were consulted, newspapers were scanned, and the internet was scoured. Letters were sent out in a variety of regional languages, and 175 artists responded with portfolios. Finally, after conversations in a variety of languages, 30 artists were commissioned to create works for the show. So, there is Pata Chitra painting from Bengal and Orissa, Phad scrolls from Rajasthan, Chittara art from Sangam district in the Western Ghats, leather puppets from Dharmavaram in Andhra Pradesh, Bhuta sculptures from Karnataka, among a host of others. The show has been divided into two parts. The first part, titled ‘Working’, has 180 works by 32 artists. Part II of the exhibition, titled ‘Working Consciously, Working Reflectively’, opened in March 2011.
Photographer Fawzan Husain who had documented this exhibition and the artists observed that this was the first time he was offered an assignment like this, and he grabbed it. “I remember meeting this leather puppet maker, S Anjaneyulu, in Dharmavaram village in Andhra. Leather puppet shows used to be the main form of entertainment here. Movies changed all that, of course. This man, perhaps, is the last such artist remaining. These puppets are usually 6-7 feet high, figures from the epics. It takes more than a week to create one. His sons cannot afford to carry on his legacy. Yet, this man continues to create, showing up cheerfully for work every day, let down perhaps, but not betrayed enough to abandon his art. I won’t forget that man’s face,” recounts Husain.
Sculptor L Rathakrishna has rendered the 108 karanas of the Natyashastra in bronze. This, possibly, is the first time this has been attempted by an artist other than in a temple: karanas are usually carved on the outside of a temple. So Shiva becomes less of a god, and more of a performer.
You can read more of Dr. Garimella’s writings on the vernacular art here https://www.academia.edu/1777530/Do_what_you_will_-_Identity_exhibitions_and_contemporary_vernacular_art
Also listen to her lecture https://vimeo.com/47226311
So friends, have a good weekend and happy Christmas in advance. Feel free to share, discuss your opinions about this series with us.
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st.