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A hui at Evergreen

"Tears of Duk' Wibahl"

“Faces from the carving studio floor” painted wood construction, Ta’wera Tahuri’. Photo courtesy Evergreen State College

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This past year, The Evergreen State College in Olympia hosted a gathering of indigenous artists from the continental U.S., Hawaii, Alaska, Samoa and New Zealand. In New Zealand and Hawaii, such gatherings of artists are called a hui. It took place at the Longhouse. Artists who took part in the hui were invited to show work in the art gallery at Evergreen. Clearly not all the 108 invited artists are represented in the show, but the gallery is jam-packed with paintings, prints of many sorts, ceramics, fine metals, fiber arts, beadwork, carving, digital media and glass. This impressive show highlights the thoughts, skills and imagination of artists from many cultures and traditions, reflecting both long-standing traditions and modern concerns.

We in the Pacific Northwest have been inundated with Native American masks, weavings, totem poles, and the powerfully graphic images of animals both mythological and real that typify Native art, and more specifically Coastal Native art. No matter how well-loved this familiar work is to those of us who live in the lands that produced it, we might believe ourselves to already know what we'd see if we attended this show. I must confess that I shared that expectation. Nevertheless, I was glad I saw this show. Yes, there are prints and carvings of stylized animals, there are woven dresses and baskets, and there are carved wood masks and drums. It might be easy to dismiss this show as just one more museum-type documentation of Native culture; but to dismiss it so easily would be to miss out on the felt spirituality of much of the work and the artistic skill on display.

Following are but a handful of examples of what you can expect to see.

RYAN! Feddersen's "Bison Stack II" is a small black and white print of a conical pile of bison skulls. The very top skull in the heap is being lowered into place on the peak of the mound like the angel or star atop a Christmas tree -- lowered not by hand but by a construction crane of the type that dots the cityscape in Seattle. So what we have here is a testament to the wholesale slaughter of buffalo that destroyed a way of life at the time of the settling of the "Wild West" by Europeans combined with a potent symbol of the rapid industrialization by which we might destroy our own white man's culture. Feddersen is a member of the Colville tribe. Dorothy Waetford's "IOEAU" is a bit of pop art sculpture that has no reference to her indigenous culture that I can grasp, although there might be meanings beyond my grasp. It consists of rounded, sculpted letters of the alphabet, the vowels of the title, in a natural red-clay color with a poured and cracked white glaze. Like Robert Indiana's "LOVE" and Andy Warhol's soup cans, it proves that the most common of everyday items can be rendered beautiful by the hands of an artist.

Karen Skyki Reed of the Puyallup tribe is showing a glass case filled with 27 tiny hand-woven baskets plus a woven doll and other items that are remarkable for their tremendous skill and patience. It is like a shelf of baskets to be found in a doll house.

Powerful and almost frightening is Othniel "Art" Oomittuk's "Three Voices Bridging the Gap." It is a large drum made of carved wood with a stretched rawhide drum head.

On the sides are carved a stylized fish, possibly an orca, and two large heads that appear to be singing. My guess is they are singing to the whale. As with many of the works in this show, there are probably references in this work to myths or legends or stories that I am not aware of. There is no wall text to explain possible meanings and traditions.

One of the more attractive pieces in the show, primarily for its rich coloring, is "Faces from the Carving Studio Floor" by I?wera Tahur?. It is a set of three forms from scrap wood glued and screwed together and painted with bright green, purple, orange, yellow and blue slashes of color on the black wood. The colors are deep and luminous, and the abstract faces are fierce.

"Tears of Duk' Wibahl," 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday-Thursday, through Dec. 10, closed college holidays Nov. 10 and Nov. 20-23, library building, The Evergreen State College, 2700 Evergreen Parkway NW, Olympia, evergreen.edu/gallery

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