20 January 2018

Two Kabuki Reviews (2014)

[As readers of Rick On Theater may know, I’m a big fan of Kabuki, one of the traditional theater forms of Japan.  I’ve blogged on it a couple of times in the years I’ve edited this blog: “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams,” posted on 1 November 2010, and “Grand Kabuki (July 1985),” 6 November 2011; Kabuki has also made an appearance on other posts, most prominently “Theater and Computers,” 5 December 2010.  A little over three years ago, the Heisei Nakamura-za of Tokyo came to New York City with the 19th-century play The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree, based on a story by Sanyutei Encho.  Below are two reviews of that production at the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center (7-12 July 2014).]

by Charles Isherwood

[Isherwood’s review appeared in the New York Times’ “Arts” section on 9 July 2014.  (The reviewer has since left the paper.)]

A Kabuki Drama at the Lincoln Center Festival

“Protect the Prada!”

That’s an admonition you might expect to hear screeched over a boozy lunch on the Upper East Side, when a glass of cabernet takes a fall. Instead, it’s being offered with a smile by a genial Japanese actor in a kimono in the Kabuki drama being presented as the opening night offering of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival. He offers the advice while passing out plastic ponchos to the first few rows of audience members, who are soon to be soaked by the overflow of the onstage waterfall that is one of the many lively effects in this splendidly entertaining show, “Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki,” which translates (rather awkwardly) as “The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree.”

Presented by the venerable Heisei Nakamura-za company, a theater whose roots date back several centuries, the production manages the nifty feat of blending Kabuki tradition with contemporary innovation. Despite the language barrier (headphones provide simultaneous translation), the resulting show, at the Rose Theater, easily draws us into an elaborate melodrama about a samurai turned artist, his loving wife, the evil usurper who seduces her and seeks to kill him, and, well, lots more.

Although that waterfall in the second act is indeed a bit of a marvel, the most jaw-dropping spectacle on view is the quick-change performance of Nakamura Kankuro, who plays three major roles. He’s Hishikawa Shigenobu, the painter who falls victim to his enemy’s machinations, and later returns as a ghost; Shosuke, Shigenobu’s loyal if addlepated servant, who is blackmailed by the villain into betraying his master; and Uwabami no Sanji, a rogue allied with the villain but with his own ambitions.

Mr. Nakamura, the eldest son of a revered Kabuki actor who died in 2012 (he shares his name, as is traditional), differentiates the roles with the natural versatility of a Western actor of similar wide-ranging gifts. And yet central to the thrill of his performance is recognizing when he has shifted from one role to another, often in the blink of an eye, and usually when two of the characters are sharing a scene. The audience, primed to the appeal of these seemingly miraculous changes, applauds each of them as if it were a burst of fireworks.

To cite just one example, during a climactic scene in which Shosuke enters a temple to announce the grievous news that Shigenobu has been killed (he knows because he was an accomplice), his news is laughed off, because the monks insist that Shigenobu is resting. Soon Shosuke has disappeared into a crowd and, within seconds, Shigenobu (or is it his ghost?) stands before us, ready to put the crowning touches on a painting. The marvel of Mr. Nakamura’s performance, aside from the charm of his characterizations (particularly the comically put-upon Shosuke), resides in these illusions, which are all the more impressive given the elaborate kimonos, wigs and makeup that define each of his three characters. At one point during a recent performance, Mr. Nakamura even switched roles as two of his characters collided in one of the theater’s aisles, just a few feet away from me. I still couldn’t tell you exactly how the feat was performed.

But Mr. Nakamura’s bravura performance is just one of the many rewards of the show, which hews to the stylistic hallmarks of traditional Kabuki but also features interludes in which minor players amble among the audience members, trading comical small talk in English (“One actor, three parts — amazing!”) and joshing with them (“Next time, upgrade,” one says to the viewers in the cheaper seats), while tapping away at their smartphones. The seamless manner in which classical style and contemporary humor are blended speaks to the smart stewardship of Mr. Nakamura, who inherited the reins after his father’s death.

Mr. Nakamura’s brother, Nakamura Shichinosuke, portrays the onnagata role (a woman’s part played by a man) of Oseki, Shigenobu’s wife, imbuing her with demure dignity and pathos, her downcast eyes almost always shying away from meeting those of others. He moves with a silky grace, and under the stark white makeup and elaborate black wig can scarcely be recognized as a man. The other major role, of the archvillain Namie, is imposingly filled by Nakamura Shido, a superb actor firmly in the Kabuki tradition, his slanting black eyebrows signifying his malign intent, his mouth a thin slash of menace.

At moments of highest drama, signified by the clapping of wooden blocks by musicians at the side of the stage, the actors strike classical poses that they accentuate with exaggerated repetitions or arch gestures. These, too, are cheered by knowing audience members as beloved set pieces of the genre, and by the end of the show, you may find yourself happily applauding them, too.

It is probably advisable to read the synopsis before the play begins, if only to familiarize yourself with the general flow of the story. Still, this could make your head spin, as the convolutions appear far more tortuous when reduced to prose than when enacted onstage. If you find yourself bewildered trying to track the characters and their relationships in the early going, when a subplot about the previous dark deeds of Namie, performed under another name, are described, just wait; things will sort themselves out pretty clearly.

But even should you get lost for a while in the mechanics of the narrative, there are visual pleasures to salve your confusion. The production’s design, relying heavily on beautifully painted flats, is both sumptuous and elegantly simple. Scenes depicting various settings — Shigenobu’s household, a restaurant, a temple, that flowing waterfall and the titular tree — are separated by the ceremonial drawing across the stage of a huge curtain painted in stripes of black, white and dark red that is itself an eye-pleasing delight.

The Lincoln Center Festival’s theatrical offerings this year are skimpy: just this production, which runs through Saturday, and Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, to be presented in August, after the festival traditionally ends, and not in the vicinity of Lincoln Center but at City Center. (Go figure.) But the pleasures of the Heisei Nakamura-za company, returning for the third time, are such that this production, with its high theatricality, low comedy, subtle musical accompaniment, choral interludes and lush designs, can almost be regarded as a festival in itself.

Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki  (The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree)

Based on a solo narrative created by Sanyutei Encho, sets and costumes based on traditional design; lighting by Ikeda Tomoya; sound by Naito Hiroshi. A Heisei Nakamura-za production, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival, Boo Froebel, producer. At the Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall,  60th Street and Broadway (Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle). 7–12 July 2014. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Performed in Japanese, with English translation via headset.

WITH: Nakamura Kankuro (Hishikawa Shigenobu/Shosuke/Uwabami no Sanji), Nakamura Shido (Isogai Namie), Nakamura Shichinosuke (Oseki), Kataoka Kamezo (Matsui Saburo/Unkai), Nakamura Kannojo (Yorozuya Shinbei), Nakamura Sanzaemon (Senjyu Shigezaemon), Nakamura Kosaburo (Takeroku), Nakamura Choshi (Okiku/Otatsu) and Sawamura Kunihisa (Ohana).

*  *  *  *
by Joan Acocella

[This review appeared in the New Yorker on 28 July 2014.  Joan Acocella has written for the New Yorker, reviewing dance and books, since 1992, and became the magazine’s dance critic in 1998.]

For people accustomed to the cooler precincts of modernist and postmodernist art, it is often a joy to reëncounter older, messier forms of theatre, with coincidences and murders and the like. Therefore, when I arrived at the Rose Theatre for “The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree,” the Kabuki company Heisei Nakamura-za’s contribution to the Lincoln Center Festival, I was not surprised to find the lobby packed with people spending too much money at the snack bar and looking as though they were going to a soccer game.

Here, with considerable abridgment, is what happens in “The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree.” The distinguished painter Shigenobu and his wife, Oseki, have a new baby boy. Hanging around the neighborhood is a self-styled samurai, Namie, wearing a hat the size of a washtub, with a nasty smirk on his face. Shigenobu announces that he’s leaving town to create a dragon painting for a famous temple. Incredibly, he entrusts the care of his wife and son to Namie. The minute he’s gone, Namie plies the family servant, Shosuke, with drink and persuades him to kill his master. On the day that Shigenobu is to finish the painting, a crowd gathers at the temple. Shigenobu enters, looking peculiar. He fills in the final detail, the dragon’s eyes. Then he mounts the altar and—poof!—he vanishes. Shosuke has carried out his assignment: Shigenobu has become a ghost. Namie now persuades Oseki to marry him, but he’d prefer not to be encumbered with the child, so he tells Shosuke to take him to a waterfall and drown him. Once Shosuke leaves, Namie instructs his henchman, Sanji, to follow the servant and kill him after he has killed the baby.

By now, it’s clear that the primary virtue of “The Wet Nurse Tree” is not its plot, which you can barely follow. Another confounding factor is that the play is full of quick-changes. Nakamura Kankuro VI, the thirty-two-year-old star of the show (and a co-director of the troupe), plays three roles—Shigenobu, Shosuke, and Sanji—and much of the audience’s pleasure derives from his shape-shifting from one role to another within a given scene. Sometimes it’s as if Kankuro can’t walk behind a tree as one character without emerging on the other side as another. Remember when Shigenobu, or what looked like him, disappeared into the altar? Well, an instant afterward another man appeared in an adjoining room of the temple. “Sanji!” the people there cried. “We didn’t notice you here before!” That’s because he wasn’t there before.

At the waterfall (a real one—spectators in the front rows were given raincoats), Shosuke and Sanji battle to the death. While Kankuro plays one man, the other may be played by a second actor, who keeps his face averted. Or we are shown a big bush in which he is supposedly hiding. Then Kankuro switches. And, the minute the baby is tossed into the water, the actor’s third persona rejoins us. Shigenobu’s ghost, white-faced and dire, appears at the top of the waterfall, looking like Zeus, the bolt-thrower. He demands his son, who is still alive, and gets him. You look from one to the next of the three characters and ask yourself which of these costumes has Kankuro in it, and how long that situation is going to last.

The virtuosity is breathtaking: not just the speed of the costume changes (how do they switch the wigs so fast?) but the acting skills, the fact that Kankuro can speak like a servant one moment and like an immortal the next. It’s more than speaking, though. Much Kabuki movement is a kind of dance, rowdy or ceremonious or whatever is required. The actors hitch up their robes to show you what their legs are doing.

The virtuosity is not just a thrill in itself; it is the motor of comedy. Compared with some other forms of Japanese theatre—Noh, for example—Kabuki had humble beginnings. It was made by common people for common people. The story goes that in the early years of the seventeenth century a certain “shrine maiden,” Okuni, had a female troupe that gathered on a dry riverbed in Kyoto and staged shows described as “kabuku”—which, according to Heisei Nakamura-za’s program notes, is an archaic word meaning “tilted” but also implying “strange” or, perhaps, “risqué.”

These shows, which were hugely popular, were soon banned, as, later, were similar theatricals using boys as actors. It seems that both groups offered sexual services as well as dramatic entertainments, a typical pairing in vernacular theatre of the time. Since the mid-seventeenth century, Kabuki, with rare exceptions, has been performed only by adult males, handing down their skills from father to son. (The Nakamura Kabuki dynasty is nineteen generations old.) Women are played by onnagata, men who specialize in female roles. Oseki, Shigenobu’s wife, is played, with porcelain delicacy, by Nakamura Shichinosuke II, Kankuro’s younger brother, who directs the company with him.

Heisei Nakamura-za does not perform on riverbeds, but it does preserve something of Kabuki’s populist origins. According to the press release, Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, the father of Kankuro and Shichinosuke, and the head of the troupe until his bitterly mourned death, from cancer, a year and a half ago (he was only fifty-seven), said that one of his goals was to strengthen “Kabuki’s happy-go-lucky, slapstick, naughty quality.” Hence, I believe, the disorderly plots and the razor-sharp stagecraft. Kanzaburo wanted to restore to Japanese audiences a comedy of awe and hilarity, a picture of life as variety and surprise. The closest analogy in American art is probably the Saturday-night movie. It is not irrelevant here that Kabuki is a commercial enterprise. Other forms of Japanese theatre, such as Noh and Bunraku, subsist on government funding. Kabuki lives on ticket sales.

It seems to me that Kanzaburo may have been a little too modern-minded: he inserted a lot of meta-theatre into his work. In this production of “The Wet Nurse Tree,” which is his (the play began its life as a story in a Tokyo newspaper, in 1889), a rather sinister tale is interrupted again and again, between scenes, by a bunch of rowdies coming out and telling us one thing or another. They’re the ones who distribute the raincoats, and they come back with mops and pails after the waterfall episode. They refer to the review—a favorable one—that they got in the Times. They express bewilderment over the plot of the play. “Plus, everyone’s name starts with an ‘S,’ ” one of them says. (In case you think Namie is an exception, it’s an alias. The character’s real name is Sasashige.)

These guys were cute, but I tired of them. I also think that Kanzaburo may have gone too far in ramping up the slapstick. When Shosuke and Sanji were engaged in what was supposed to be mortal combat, they looked a lot like a couple of kids having a water fight in a swimming pool. Again, it was fun for a while, but not for as long as it lasted, and, if fun was what this episode was about, how do you explain that scary ghost sitting at the top of the waterfall?

Still, I don’t feel quite right about second-guessing a man who was trying to keep a four-hundred-year-old theatrical form alive as a commercial enterprise. Also, he made wonderfully subtle decisions at certain points—the end, for example. The villainous Namie, of course, has to be eliminated (to our disgust, he is still married to the nice Oseki), but the person who gets to do the deed is Shigenobu’s child—who is now nine years old—and he uses a pretty silver sword that looks like something out of “The Nutcracker.” Down goes Namie, and what seems to be a flame-shaped holograph appears in the air—obviously Shigenobu’s spirit, avenged at last, and proud of his son. Everything here is just right: dignified and ritualistic—a dance—but also a little sweet, a little funny. 

15 January 2018

'Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait'

A number of years ago, when I was doing research on Leonardo Shapiro, the avant-garde stage director about whom I’ve written several times on this blog, I looked into one of the artists he named as influences, Pudlo Pudlat (1916-92), an Inuit painter and printmaker.  (I’ve blogged about Leo a number of times for Rick On Theater; see, for example, “Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos),” 5 August 2009; “Cheerleaders of the Revolution,” 31 October 2009; “Brother, You’re Next,” 26 January 2010; “New York Free Theater,” 4 April 2010; “War Carnival,” 13 May 2010; “‘As It Is In Heaven,’” 25 March 2011; “Acting: Testimony & Role vs. Character,” 25 September 2013; “Shaliko’s Strangers,” 3 and 6 March 2014; “Mount Analogue,” 20 July 2014; and “Shaliko’s Kafka: Father and Son,” 5 and 8 November 2015; as well as “‘Two Thousand Years of Stony Sleep,’” an early piece of writing by Shapiro himself, 7 May 2011.)  I’d never heard of Pudlo—Inuit commonly use only one name and this is how the artist is internationally known—but as I looked more deeply into him and his art, I found an engrossing and revealing subject. 

As readers of ROT know, I fancy myself a devotee of art, so I pursued the story of Pudlo and discovered that the artist, his work, and Inuit art just interested me.  On a visit I made to Quebec City in December 2000, a center of Inuit art, and later one to Vancouver in August 2003, I learned some general facts about the art of the Inuit people, which has an interesting, and I suspect unique, history (which I’ll précis in a moment).  Ever since then, I’ve had an interest in Inuit art so when I read last August that the George Gustav Heye Center, the National Museum of the American Indian branch in lower  Manhattan, was hosting an exhibit of works by three Canadian Inuit artists, I suggested to my friend Diana (who’s my usual theater companion but who also has an abiding interest in art and art museums) that we make a trip downtown to see it. 

We left the visit until the end of run of Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait (10 June 2017-8 January 2018) and didn’t get down to Bowling Green until Sunday, 7 January.  (We were further delayed, beyond plain, old procrastination, by the nor’easter of Thursday, 4 January, the original date of our planned visit to the museum.  At the last minute on the 7th, furthermore, Diana didn’t feel well and dropped out.  I had figured she probably didn’t know Inuit art or New York’s NMAI as neither are well known to the general public.  Part of my reason for going to the show had been to introduce her to both of them, but I went downtown on my own anyway.)  

The word akunnittinni, according to Andrea R. Hanley, the exhibition curator of Santa Fe, New Mexico’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts, loosely means “between us” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people.  (If you are my age or older, you are probably more used to speaking of the people of the arctic as Eskimos but, especially in Canada, the current, and preferred, name is Inuit.)  A Kinngait Family Portrait displays a family gathering among an Inuk grandmother, mother, and daughter: Pitseolak Ashoona, Napachie Pootoogook, and Annie Pootoogook. The three women “are known for illustrating life’s intimacies within their Arctic communities and families, as well as life’s challenges.”  They are the “us” in akunnittinni and what’s “between” them is what the Smithsonian’s press release characterized as a “visual conversation” with one another.

Kinngait, the Inuit name for the remote hamlet of Cape Dorset on Dorset Island in Nunavut, the Canadian territory established as an Inuit homeland in 1999, was the home of Pitseolak, Napachie, and Annie and the Ashoona-Pootoogook family of artists—a family with a strong artistic identity that has contributed significantly to the reputation of Kinngait art.  Kinngait’s nicknamed the “Capital of Inuit Art” and artists from the area are renowned worldwide for their prints, drawings, paintings, and sculptures, produced in places like the now famous Kinngait Studios since the 1940s.  Almost a quarter of the town’s working residents is employed in some aspect of the art business.

Eskimo, which is still used in the U.S., especially in Alaska, refers to several native peoples, including the Inuit.  The term Eskimo is a foreign word applied to the Inuit and other peoples by outside tribes.  Its most likely etymology is a Montagnais word meaning ‘snowshoe-lacer.’  (The Montagnais are a group inhabiting the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec and Labrador.)  In Canada, however, the word is believed to be derived from an Algonquin word that means ‘raw meat-eater,’ and although linguistically this is less likely, the belief is widely held in Canada and the word Eskimo is considered derogatory and racist.  In any case, the Canadian government officially recognizes the people of the far north, including Nunavut, as Inuit, the name these native peoples use to refer to themselves; the name Eskimo is seldom heard in Canada today.  Inuit, by the way, is plural; the singular is Inuk, which means ‘person.’  The native tongue of the Inuit, as I stated above, is Inuktitut, one of the official languages of Nunavut.

The Inuit people were a nomadic culture of hunter-gatherers in the arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska well into the 20th century.  (There are also significant populations of Inuit in Denmark and Russia.)  Following the fish and game of the far north as the ice receded, living in igloos (which means simply ‘house’ and may be made of ice and snow, corresponding to the familiar image we have, but is also commonly built from stone, sod, mud, skins, or any other convenient material), and moving from spot to spot as the hunting, weather, or terrain necessitated. 

Traveling by dogsled across land and in umiaks or the smaller kayaks across water, an Inuit family or clan could not really afford to carry much with them that wasn’t of immediate practical value in their harsh life, so decoration was minimal, and artwork, even on practical items, was uncommon.  (The 2001 Inuit-produced—also -directed and -acted—movie Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner gives a dramatic glimpse of this lifestyle.)  What little there was was carved ivory or bone.  A change occurred in about 1945, however, when the Canadian government encouraged Inuit and other native peoples to settle in towns and villages, learn cultivation and other domestic skills, and give up the nomadic life they’d known for centuries.  I won’t get into the socio-political implications of this change (except to suggest that it wasn’t entirely insensitive and cold-hearted as the world around the Inuit had changed and their subsistence existence was becoming untenable), but the sociological effect was profound.

The Canadian government saw that the move to permanent habitation in towns and villages left many Inuit without traditional livelihoods or even pastimes.  This was mostly true of the men, as the women were able to transfer their traditional responsibilities of homemaking and child-rearing from the nomadic existence to the permanent one with little significant change (except, of course, that they now got their material needs from stores instead of the wild).  The men, on the other hand, were the ones who lost their customary occupations.  Looking around for something with which to replace the lost income and work, the government lit on art and established training programs and outlets for whatever the Inuit produced, even supplying them with the materials they needed. 

In what may be one of the rare examples among artificial cultural redirection, the plan succeeded wildly.  I guess the Inuit had a hidden tribal talent for making terrific art, and they started a co-op in 1958 to market and determine the prices of their work so that they wouldn’t be ripped off by gallery owners and dealers or, in turn, cheat the buying public.  Inuit art took off in popularity and desirability in the south.  Over time, some artists became recognized, such as Pudlo (on whom I blogged on 28 September 2009) and the Ashoona-Pootoogook family, and art museums began organizing exhibitions of Inuit works.  Collectors, first in Canada then in the United States, began to buy the art.  As making art supplanted the fur trade as the region’s principal employment, whole villages lived off the art turned out in their community studios, some making it, some marketing it, some managing the studios; printmaking became a profitable concern. 

Over 70 years now, Inuit art has become established and while it started as naïve work, it now has a sophistication and dynamic that compares easily with the works of American Indian artists in, say, the Taos art colony area (coincidentally, near where Akunnittinni was organized at the IAIA).  In both cases, too, the themes and subjects developed from strict focus on traditional culture to an embrace of the whole universe around them—in the case of the Inuit, the Canada of the Europeans and the technology of the middle- and late-20th-century world.  Though many Inuit artists work in a naturalistic style, carving animals or scenes common to the Canadian north, many others work in symbolist and abstract styles that draw on indigenous images and refer to the style of Inuit art that developed in the post-World War II years (there not having been a true indigenous precursor).  The media used by Inuit artists has expanded as well, from simple carvings to sophisticated soapstone sculpture, painting, drawing, lithography, and all the forms commonly used by Western artists.  Among the most popular subjects I observed in Inuit art when I was in Quebec and later in Vancouver at the other end of the country were native animals, Inuit figures, and the mysterious and majestic inuksuit, a form nearly ubiquitous in the galleries and shops all over both cities.  (I have an Inuit sculpture entitled Inukshuk and I blogged on the subject of the carving in “Inuksuit,” posted on 10 August 2011.)

A little history of NMAI: George Gustav Heye (1874-1957) opened his private Museum of the American Indian to the public in 1922 to house and display his own collection of Native American art.  He’d started collecting in 1903 and he established the Heye Foundation in 1916 to oversee it and promote the study of Indian art and culture.  The museum was located at 155th Street and Broadway in Harlem until it was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and moved to the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in 1994.  The Smithsonian took over Heye’s museum in 1989 and opened the main building for the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in 2004.  The George Gustav Heye Center, now a satellite of the larger NMAI, maintains its own permanent collection (based on Heye’s original holdings) and exhibits. 

The Hamilton Custom House, which also houses the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, the National Archives at New York City, and a branch of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is a splendid Beaux Arts building built in 1907.  It served as the U.S. Custom House in New York City until 1973 (when its customs function was moved to 6 World Trade Center) and in 1979, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) saved the building from demolition.  A restoration having been completed in 1987, the building was renamed for the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury (under whose jurisdiction customs fell until 2003) in 1990 with Moynihan’s sponsorship.  Designed by St. Paul, Minnesota, architect Cass Gilbert (1859–1934), who had once worked for McKim, Mead & White (Washington Arch, 1892; the main campus of Columbia University, 1893-1900; the Brooklyn Museum, 1895; New York’s former Pennsylvania Station, 1910; and the James Farley Post Office in Manhattan, 1913; among many other significant buildings), the custom house is architecturally stunning in its own right.  A National Historic Landmark (1976) and listed on the National Register of Historic Places (exterior and interior, 1972), the custom house on its own is worth a visit.  It’s a magnificent Beaux Arts building with many stunning architectural and artistic details (outlined in “Architecture & History” on the Heye Center webpage at http://nmai.si.edu/visit/newyork/architecture-history/) and serves as a magnificent example of the re-purposing of historic architecture. 

According to Hanley, the art works of Pitseolak, Napachie, and Annie Pootoogook “provide a personal and cultural history of three generations of Inuit women whose art practices included autobiographical narratives and chronicled intimate and sometimes harsh memories and historically resonant moments.”  (Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait, curated by Andrea Hanley, was organized by the IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.  It appeared there at the MoCNA from 22 January through 1 April 2016.)  The Ashoona and Pootoogook works, says Hanley, “also include sardonic references to pop culture, which now infuses everyday life in Kinngait, as well as nuanced depictions of family and village life.”  Patsy Phillips, director of the IAIA, observed: “The grandmother painted more romanticized versions of the story she heard—of how the culture used to be.  The mother drew more of the darker side of the stories she heard [while] the daughter’s were much more current.”

Pitseolak (1904–1983; some accounts give her birth year as 1907 or 1908) was born on Nottingham Island (Tujajuak) in the Hudson Straights in the Northwest Territories (part if which is now Nunavut).  She spent her childhood in several camps on the south Baffin Island (Qikiqtaaluk) coast.  She was a member of one of the last generations of Inuit to grow up in the centuries-old traditions of the North American Inuit—or, as the artist characterized it, “long ago before there were many white men.”  She married Ashoona, a hunter, in 1922 or ’23 in a marriage arranged by her uncle after her father died about a year earlier, and she bore 17 children, only six of whom she raised to adulthood.  (Though some died as children, others, as was the custom, were raised by other Inuit families.)  Pitseolak was the matriarch of a large family of artists, including at least five children—sons Namoonai (1926-2002), Kaka (1928-96), Koomwartok (1930-84), Kiawak (1933-2014), and Ottochie Ashoona (1942-70), all sculptors, and daughter Napachie, a graphic artist—and three grandchildren—Ohitok Ashoona (b. 1952, sculptor), Shuvinai Ashoona, (b. 1961, graphic artist), and Annie Pootoogook (graphic artist).  (A note about Inuit names: Inuktitut has its own writing system, and when names and words are transliterated into English, there are often spelling variations.)  Pitseolak’s husband, Ashoona, died at 40 years of age during an epidemic in the Nettilling Lake area, near the south end of Baffin Island, in the mid-1940s (around 1944 or ’45), leaving Pitseolak to raise their young family on her own. 

Pitseolak, by then in her 50s, settled permanently in Kinngait/Cape Dorset in the early 1960’s where she was encouraged to try drawing as a way to support her family after the death of her husband.  She’s said drawing also served as an emotional support for her, and it’s little wonder that images of motherhood were central to Pitseolak’s art.  She was among the first Inuk in Kinngait to start drawing, beginning with stonecut prints, and one of the most prolific.  Despite the sad circumstances that initiated her drawing and a life of hardship, Pitseolak’s art mostly depicts a positive view of the Inuit way of life remembered from her childhood.  According to Christine Lalonde, Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, “scenes of deprivation or suffering almost never appear in her drawings,” and, indeed, the sample on exhibit at the Heye Center demonstrated this trait (which we’ll see is in contrast to the drawings of her daughter). 

(Stonecut, not to be confused with the more technically complicated lithography, is a process much like woodcut or linocut—all forms of “relief” printing—which the Kinngait printmakers have refined.  The first step is tracing the original drawing onto the smooth surface of a prepared stone.  Using India ink, the printer outlines the drawing on the stone and then chips away the areas that are not to appear in print, leaving the uncut areas raised, or in relief.  The raised area is inked using rollers and then a thin sheet of fine paper is placed over the inked surface and the paper is pressed gently against the stone by hand with a small, padded disc.  Only a single print can be made from each inking of the stone, so the edition takes time, care, and patience.) 

Remembrance of Inuit society of her youth shows up clearly in Pitseolak’s Games of My Youth (stonecut and stencil, 1978), in which four Inuk girls are at play, two of them playing an Inuit ball game while a third is hanging in mid-tackle of an opponent, and in Family Camping in Tuniq Ruins (stonecut and stencil, 1976), with its family of seven Inuit in traditional garb peering out of an igloo.  Another example of this subject is Migration towards Our Summer Camp (lithograph, 1983), a collection of images of a smiling Inuit clan on the move in traditional clothing for a trek through the tundra, wearing backpacks and carrying harpoons, accompanied by dogs and pack animals, transporting fishing and hunting gear.  The most iconic (and earliest) of Pitseolak’s works on display here was the 1969 Dream of Motherhood (color stonecut on paper), a fanciful image of a woman with long braids and her hands in the air, fingers extended, carrying two children atop her head in the hood of her parka.  (The garment is in fact an amauti, a traditional Inuit parka specifically designed for the hood to serve as a baby-carrier.)

Pitseolak made close to 9,000 drawings during her 20 years in Kinngait.  Her prints, rendered in muted, mostly earth colors, have appeared in every annual print collection since her work was first published in 1960.  Her best and most authentic drawings were of “the old Eskimo ways,” as she said, a way of life firmly imprinted on her memory.  In the conventions of Inuit art, this is known as sulijuk, ‘it is true’ or ‘it is realistic’—which indicates artists depicted elements of Inuit life as they saw it, without interpolating much of  their own imagination.  Pitseolak received several honors in her lifetime, and her work has been the subject of several projects.  In 1971, the National Film Board of Canada produced a documentary based on her book, Pitseolak: Pictures out of My Life (McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2003).  In 1974. she was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy and she received the Order of Canada in 1977.  Pitseolak died in 1983 and is buried behind the Anglican Church in Kinngait.  She had promised to work on her drawings and prints until she was no longer able, and she fulfilled the vow.  Her vast legacy of art work is currently on long-term loan at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection near Toronto where it is being photographed, documented, and exhibited.

Born at Sako, a traditional Inuit camp on the southwest coast of Baffin Island, Northwest Territories, Napachie (1938–2002) was the only surviving daughter of Pitseolak; along with her four sculptor brothers, and her graphic-artist sisters-in-law, Mayureak (b. 1946,  wife of Kaka) and Sorosiluto Ashoona (b. 1941, wife of Kiawak), she was part of the prominent and renowned Inuit artist clan.  In the mid-1950s while living at Kiaktuuq, she married sculptor and printmaker Eegyvukluk Pootoogook (1931-2000), son of an important camp leader, Pootoogook (1887-1958), a graphic artist and carver who later become one of the main printers at the Kinngait Studios.  (Like her mother’s, Napachie’s marriage was arranged.)  Napachie, Eegyvukluk, and their 11 children (who included daughter Annie Pootoogook, a third-generation artist) moved to Kinngait in 1965 and, just as her mother had, took up drawing; she sold her first drawings at age 25 (1963) for $20.  Since then, Napachie’s work has been included in almost every annual collection of Kinngait prints.  She created works until her death from cancer at 64, leaving a legacy of over 5,000 prints and drawings.

Napachie used a vigorous, energetic figurative style to bring to life narrative scenes depicting both personal memories and ancient stories depicting local current, mythical, and legendary figures.  Following classes in painting and drawing at the Kinngait Studios, after 1976, she drew landscapes and interiors using notions of spatial composition of Western techniques.  Although many of her early prints and drawings presented a rhapsodic depiction of Inuit spiritual beliefs, the focus of her work since the mid-1970s, as exemplified by those featured in Akunnittinni, was more on recording the traditional home life of the Inuit people, “including,” as the exhibit text put it, “darker aspects that  were left out of her mother’s more idealistic representations.”  

Indeed, according to Will Huffman, marketing manager at Dorset Fine Arts in Toronto, the marketing division of Kinngait Studios, Napachie revealed aspects of her culture that many Inuit would have preferred not be seen by outsiders—a characteristic that reminds me of Native American artist Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), on whom I blogged on 20 March 2011.  This can be seen in 1994’s Alcohol (colored pencil and ink on paper), which depicts a woman holding a small child while handing a kneeling man a bottle of (presumably) liquor—or is she taking it away from him?  On the floor in front of the man—her husband and the father of the toddler?—is a  broken bottle.  He’s holding a fat stick (a weapon?) and his mouth is open wide as if he might be yelling at the woman, while sprawled on the floor behind him is another man, sleeping or passed out.  The reference is clearly the alcoholism that plagues Inuit (as well as other Native American) communities with hints—the stick—of the domestic violence and abuse that is also an endemic problem among Inuit.

In Male Dominance (ink and colored pencil on paper, 1995-96), Napachie presents five weeping women surrounding a man wielding a long knife; on the ground by his knee is a small bow with an arrow.  He’s looking out at us, smiling in self-satisfaction.  The six are connected to each other by a rope, symbolizing the utter dependence of Inuit women on men, who could abduct them as wives, even if they were already married.  (There is, as Hanley, who’s Navajo, puts it, a broad streak of “contemporary indigenous feminist” emphasis in all three artists’ work, but particularly Napachie’s.)  If a man desired another Inuk’s wife, he could just kill his rival and take the man’s wife for his own.  Napachie habitually incorporated inscriptions (in Inktitut, the artist’s only spoken and written tongue), and on Male Dominance, she wrote:

Aatachaliuk is scaring women to ensure his domination, before he claims them as wives, after slaying his male enemies.  He did this to hide his soft side.

Trading Women for Supplies (ink on paper, 1997-98) is a portrayal of a Caucasian captain of a whaler exchanging materials and supplies—a jacket and a duffel bag of cans and boxes—to an Inuit man in a parka for a woman.  “The captain from the bowhead whale hunting ship is trading materials and supplies for the women,” inscribed Napachie.  “As usual, the man agrees without hesitation.”  In the drawing, according to Edward J. Guarino, a retired high school teacher from Yonkers, New York, and Inuit art collector who lent some of his holdings for the show, the artist “documents the sexual exploitation of  Inuit women by men, both Inuit and non-Inuit.”

Arguably the most grotesque and shocking picture in the exhibit was Napachie’s Eating His  Mother’s Remains (ink on paper, 1999-2000).  It’s an image of exactly what the title says: a man “is chopping up and eating his mother’s rump before leaving.   He is also preparing to take the human remains by wrapping them in seal skin and using the rope to bind it.”  While cannibalism wasn’t ever part of the Inuit culture, it was practiced rarely in the event of extreme famine and Pat Feheley, owner of Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto and an expert on Inuit art, wrote: “. . . I expect that someone had told Napachie about this particular man.” 

Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016), born in Kinngait, was the daughter of Napachie and Eegyvukluk, and the granddaughter of Pitseolak.  By the time she was born, the Ashoonas and Pootoogooks were firmly in the middle class as a consequence of their artistic endeavors.  Annie began drawing in 1997 at the age of 28 and quickly developed a preference for scenes from her own life, becoming a prolific graphic artist.  In 2003, Annie’s first print, an etching and aquatint drawn on copper plate, was released.  The image, entitled Interior and Exterior (not included in the NMAI show), is a memory of the artist’s childhood, lovingly recording the particulars of settlement life in Kinngait in the 1970s.  Her first solo exhibition at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto in 2006, and winning that same year the Sobey Art Award (which came with a prize of $50,000 Canadian, the equivalent of about $48,000 U.S. today)—as well as her participation at Documenta 12 (a quinquennial exhibit of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany) and the Montreal Biennale in 2007, established her as the leading contemporary Inuit graphic artist of the period.  At Documenta, Annie exhibited not as a native artist as her predecessors from Kinngait had commonly been classified, but as a modern artist.

After the sudden acclaim, Annie moved from Kinngait to Ottawa in 2007, but the spotlight that had been turned on her wasn’t a positive development for her artistically or personally.  She created little new art in the years following the move (there are no pieces of Annie’s work after the early 2000s in Akunnittinni) and began living on the streets and along the banks of the city’s Rideau River, falling into drug abuse and addiction.  In 2010, she started a relationship with William Watt, who became her common-law husband; they had a daughter in 2012.  (Annie had two older sons, now adults, who were adopted by relatives.  Her daughter, named after her mother, Napachie, was eventually also adopted.)  Around that year, she began drawing again, making one sketch a day which she sold for cigarette money, about $25 or $30 each; her Kinngait works were selling for $1,600 to $2,600 a piece at her Toronto gallery. 

Four years later, on 19 September 2016, 47-year-old Annie Pootoogook’s body was found in the Rideau River in Ottawa.  While her death hasn’t been ruled a homicide—the cause of death was drowning, but the medical examiners couldn’t determine if the renowned artist drowned herself or if she was drowned by someone else—the Ottawa Police Service continues to investigate the death as suspicious.

Annie’s artwork, mostly drawings on paper with ink and colored pencil, broke with conventional traditions of Inuit art.  Her subjects were not arctic animals or serene scenes of nomadic existence from a time before settlement life; rather, her images reflected her experiences as a female artist growing up, living, and working in contemporary Canada.  Her art depicted a community experiencing transition and conflict as the old ways of her grandmother and mother clashed with modern Canada.  (In this aspect, Annie was following in a path blazed by one of Inuit art’s most illustrious old-timers, Pudlo, who made room in his  art for modern technology alongside the traditional Inuit and arctic images.  Pudlo, however, didn’t see 20th-century phenomena as clashing with Inuit life; they’d become part of it.)  Taking inspiration from her grandmother and mother, nonetheless, and following their lead in the sulijuk tradition, Annie depicted the life of her community in flux in bright, vivid colors in contrast to Pitseolak’s subdued palette.

Like her grandmother, Pitseolak, before her, however, Annie was an instinctive chronicler of her times.  She filled her domestic interiors with details such as clocks and calendars, graduation photos, and Inuktitut messages stuck to the fridge in modern Inuit kitchens.  Indeed, unlike much conventional Inuit art, in which figures are usually isolated in ambiguous, white backgrounds, Annie filled her pictures with fully-limned settings, usually interiors, like little stage sets.  Her graphics record the incursions of the mainstream culture into Inuit life, with images of technology like ATM machines, television, videogames, mobile phones, and snow mobiles.  The death of her mother, Napachie, in 2002 led Annie to explore themes of mortality and spirituality.

The theme of the inclusion of modern technology in everyday Inuit life appears with a touch of humor in Watching the Simpsons on TV (pencil, ink, and colored pencil on paper, 2003), a hyper-detailed scene of the interior of a contemporary Inuit home with the young mother and father either dressing to go out into the cold or doffing their outerwear after coming home, while their small child, bundled up in his or her parka, is standing facing away from us, staring at Marge and Homer Simpson on the television set right in front of his face.  In its simplicity and directness, Annie’s drawing could be a one-panel cartoon: it tells a whole story at a glance and makes a comment on a social phenomenon in a subtle and amusing way. 

2003–04’s Family Sleeping in a Tent (colored pencil and ink on paper) works the same way: we see two couples snuggled in sleeping bags on a pair of double mattresses in a huge tent.  Around them are all the conveniences of a modern campsite: camp stove, Coleman lantern, CB radio, a can of “camping fuel,” a radio, and a clock.  (With all that equipment, you know they got to the campsite in a truck or an SUV!)  As a bonus benefit, it’s interesting to contrast this drawing with Pitseolak’s Family Camping in Tuniq Ruins.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Annie drew Family Sleeping as a deliberate homage to her grandmother’s Family Camping.  The younger artist clearly felt a special connection to Pitseolak since included in this exhibit are two prints which are direct and specific references to the older artist: 2006’s Pitseolak’s Glasses (collagraph on paper), which simply presents the late artist’s familiar black-framed glasses (Jason Farago described them as “Nana Mouskouri-style eyeglasses” in the New York Times—for anyone who knows who that is!), and Portrait of Pitseolak (collagraph and ink on paper, 2003-04), portraying Annie’s grandmother standing alone before a blank, white background—a reference, I suspect, to the convention of her grandmother’s and mother’s practice—wearing not a traditional Inuit parka, but a dark gray, modern jacket, buttoned all the way up, over a red skirt with green flowers, with a gray polka-dot head scarf tied under her chin, carrying a brown wooden cane in her right hand and a yellow, polka-dot bag in her  left.  Pitseolak’s wearing the signature glasses in the portrait.  (A collagraph is a form of monoprint created from a collage of textures that have been glued onto a rigid surface.)  Edward Guarino, the Inuit art collector, calling the poignant and touching Glasses “a masterpiece,” characterized the picture as “a contemporary still life that is also a moving symbolic portrait of a beloved family member who has died.”  Of the affectionate Portrait, Guarino wrote that it’s “at once a remembrance of a beloved family member as well as the likeness of a celebrated artist and a portrait of old age.” 

Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait is a very small show, displayed along one wall of the corridor outside the Heye’s permanent exhibit gallery.  There are only 18 prints and drawings, six from each of the artists.  Each one, however, is  exquisite, providing a glimpse of the later work of the three women that, at least according to the IAIA’s Hanley, exemplified each one’s style and main themes.  The works of Pitseolak Ashoona and Napachie and Annie Pootoogook are also remarkable because each  print or drawing tells a little tale; you can’t describe most of them, as I imagine you’ve noticed, without recounting the story behind the image. (Napachie, of course, actually inscribed her works with the story she’s illustrating.)  However small the selection of works, though, the “discourse and dialog” among the three artists, as Hanley terms it, is nonetheless powerful.  Furthermore, spanning nearly 40 years, the pieces on display at the Heye Center also chronicle how the family’s life and the world of Kinngait have changed over time.  (The three artists’ lives actually covered well over a century of Inuit history.)

On the website Hyperallergic, Christopher Green wrote that the exhibit “moves past the belabored topics of market making and the in/authentic modernity of Cape Dorset printmaking to pursue matrilineal discourses internal to the community.  The effect,” he continued, “is an inward-looking familial history, rather than one . . . that focuses on the needs and desires of southerners.”  Pitseolak’s works, asserted Green, demonstrated “the long line of generational knowledge that reaches back to precolonial life,” while Napachie’s pictures represent a “foray into particularly contemporary issues that were not necessarily present in Ashoona’s work.”  The art critic declared, “It is the work of Annie Pootoogook that most strikingly demonstrates the ways traditional Inuit family life has been integrated into the modern North,” and insisted, “Her drawings alone are reason enough to see the exhibition.” 

Jennifer Levin wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexican, “The exhibition shows . . . a humorous eye for detail and an impulse to tell stories about family life.”  In Akunnittinni, which Levin covered at MoCNA, it’s Napachie’s work that “stands out as the most shocking in its reflection of Inuit life,” she observed, but Annie’s “vibrant work” displays her “edgy insistence on present-day life in the Canadian Arctic.”  The critic summed the show up by observing that it “shows that, like family and cultural traditions, some artistic concerns are passed down, mother to daughter to granddaughter, as each generation turns to drawing for its own reasons.”

In the Inuit Art Quarterly, Michelle McGeough (also writing about the Santa Fe exhibit) remarked:

The exhibition . . . gives each artist space in the intimate gallery to present their unique individual visual depiction of Inuit history, positioning a life lived on the land prior to settlement living alongside stories of the contemporary realities of Northern life.  This arrangement gives the viewer the opportunity to appreciate the individual artists’ articulation of northern life and oral traditions.

Of the works of Pitseolak on exhibit, McGeough noted that “the artist’s prints brilliantly demonstrate her mastery of line and composition and her ability to eloquently render the movement of a body through space.”  Her daughter, Napachie’s “narrative imagery depicts a much harsher reality for Inuit women.  She does not shy away from uncomfortable topics, and in doing so, challenges any idealized notions one might have of northern life.”  They are “dramatic depictions of oral traditions and a collective history marked by change.”  McGeough continued: “In contrast, Annie Pootoogook’s artistic sensibility is shaped by the sweeping thrust of modernity in Canada’s North.  Infused with popular culture references, her depictions of contemporary life focus on the personal and intimate.”  The IAQ critic added, “The viewer instinctively knows she shares a very personal relationship with the subjects whom she depicts.” 

In the New York Times, Jason Farago dubbed Akunnittinni “touching” and remarked that while the three artists “each established quite distinct artistic vocabularies,” nevertheless “beneath their divergent styles were common concerns about the wages of modernization, as well as the role of art among families and communities “  The Timesman observed that Pitseolak’s pictures “depict seals, dogs, ballplayers and a camping family as hard-edge figures afloat in fields of white,” while her daughter, Napachie’s, “engaged with social concerns in their community, including alcoholism and the abuse of women.”  Annie Pootoogook “took that present-tense orientation even further,” continued Farago, “completing raw but often humorous drawings of contemporary life in Cape Dorset.” 

[I recommend that anyone even remotely interested in the art and artifacts of the American Indian, much of which is breathtakingly beautiful and all of which is eye-opening, pay a visit to the Heye Center, a little-known  gem of New York City culture at the southern tip of ManhattanLike all Smithsonian facilities, it’s free and open every day (including Mondays, the traditional dark day for museums, and holidays except Christmas Day) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (until 8 p.m. on Thursdays).  The address of the Heye Center is 1 Bowling Green (on Whitehall Street, an extension of Broadway, at Stone Street) and its phone number is (212) 514-3700; the website is at http://nmai.si.edu/visit/newyork/.]

10 January 2018

“The Museum Should Be Open to All"

by Holland Cotter and Roberta Smith

[On Thursday, 4 January, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced a new admissions policy for out-of-state visitors to the city-subsidized museum.  The New York Times set up a conversation between art critics Holland Carter and Roberta Smith to discuss this change in the 47-year-old admissions policy.  Many of the points Cotter and Smith make here are, in a broader application, arguments for the support for and the increase of arts programs in schools.  Most ROTters know that arts education and funding for the arts, which are inseparably connected in my mind, are subjects of concern to me.  The transcript of Cotter and Smith’s discussion posted below was published in the  New York Times in the “Weekend Arts II” section on 5 January 2018.  ~Rick]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new admission policy beginning in March will end pay-as-you-wish for out-of-state visitors, for the first time since 1970 — and residents of New York State will need to show some form of identification. The two chief art critics of The New York Times weighed in on the significance of these changes.

HOLLAND COTTER Loopy as it may sound, on principle I believe major public museums should have universal free admission. You should be able to walk in off the street and see the art just as you can enter a public library and read the books on the shelf. If this country had a government that cared about its citizens rather than one that catered to its economic ruling class, we might be able to live some version of this ideal.

ROBERTA SMITH I don’t think it’s loopy at all. If libraries started charging entrance fees there would be a great uproar. We don’t have to pay for access to publicly owned books, and we shouldn’t have to pay to see art in museums whose nonprofit status is supported by our taxes. Reading skills are seen as essential to the common good. Visual literacy is every bit as important, and if our culture and school systems placed more emphasis on learning about art, people would grow up with more of a museum habit.

COTTER That economic ruling class, for its part, could, and should, contribute to an open-door cultural policy. I think of a very small example of the possibilities: Thanks to earmarked donations by a single patron (the Rubins, of the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea) the Bronx Museum of the Arts was able to begin a free admission program for several years that the museum continues today.

Which leads me to wonder about the civic good will behind — and institutional wisdom in accepting — another example of donor earmarking: the $65 million patron-inscribed fountains recently installed (and critically panned) at the Met. If the museum’s figures are accurate, and the new mandatory policy for out of state visitors will bring in $6 million to $11 million a year in admissions revenue; the money spent on the fountains would have covered that income for a decade.

SMITH Someone should be able to figure this out without putting it on the public’s shoulders. The projected annual increase in admissions revenue — from $42 million to $50 million — seems minuscule, and they say it’s only going to affect 31 percent of its overall visitors anyway. So why not find the money somewhere else and affect zero percent?

The Met says that adults are paying less, owing partly to the lawsuit requiring the museum to refine its language at admission desks and on its website — from “recommended admission” to “suggested admission.” So hire a really good design firm to formulate some kind of counter campaign, signage with tons of jokes cajoling people who have the means to pay the suggested fee. Like “If you’re wearing mink, or a bespoke suit, or if your entire outfit totals out at more than $3,500, think about dropping $25 to visit the greatest museum in the world. You’ll be helping others who can’t afford your wardrobe.”

The Met’s David H. Koch Plaza is in its way a similar lack of imagination. The 1968 Roche Dinkeloo plaza design was gracious and spacious. Those new awful Darth Vaderish fountains take huge hunks out of the plaza and disrupt movement. Both Koch Plaza and the Met’s fixed admissions reflect something widespread: the continual degrading and privatization of public space.

COTTER Given the fiscal realities the Met is dealing with at this point, whoever is to blame — the Met points to the precipitous 73 percent drop in visitors paying the full “suggested” amount — the new, graduated admission policy doesn’t strike me, purely in dollars-and-cents terms, as completely outrageous, particularly as a full price ticket is good for three days of admission to the three Met branches.

My big problem lies elsewhere. I’m instinctively suspicious of, and resistant to, “carding” procedures, meaning any admission policy based on presenting personal identification, which is what the Met is asking for from New York State residents who want to keep paying what they wish.

This potentially discriminates against a population of residents who either don’t have legal identification or are reluctant to show the identification they have. And it plays directly into the hands of the anti-immigrant sentiment that is now poisoning this country. I cannot remember a time when a museum’s unqualified demonstration of “doors open to all” would carry more positive — I would say necessary — political weight. This is my single biggest reservation about the Met’s admission-by-I.D. policy.

And even for legally documented citizens I see potential problems. The Met says it will not turn people away even if they don’t present an I.D., though it will remind them to bring an I.D. on a return visit. I don’t know what kind of guidelines will be in place for delivering such “warnings,” but I can easily imagine a young person who may have no I.D. feeling discouraged from returning to the museum.

SMITH And young people are very important. For example, the Met will allow students from New Jersey and Connecticut to pay as they wish. Why shouldn’t that apply to students everywhere? People want to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States; a more visually literate society produces more people able to design things for factories to make. Museums directly inspire and cultivate talent and creativity. To exclude people from them is a loss that can be measured in economics, and happiness. The “pursuit of happiness” wasn’t mentioned in the Declaration of Independence because it sounds good. It is an important aspect of a nation’s health, on all fronts.

So I worry that the Met’s plan is classist, and nativist. It divides people into categories — rich and poor, native and foreign — which is exactly what this country does not need right now. I think this is tied to the abstract way wealth is accrued these days. In the last Gilded Age the rich had a much more literal sense of the suffering their fortunes were built on and a greater need to give back.

COTTER In the pre-integration 1950s and early 1960s, the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama admitted black visitors only on Tuesdays. Technically, “everybody” could enter the museum, but only if they adhered to the admission policy. And that policy effectively discouraged an entire population from ever considering the museum anything but alien territory. I am very wary of potential psychological deterrents of this kind, not only as they impact the visitor population, but also as they affect the continuing viability of the Met itself, and other institutions that present themselves as being culturally comprehensive. They need, on every level, from the reception of visitors at the door to the experience of history delivered in the galleries, to make us know this is “our history, our place.”

SMITH The Met says it is the only major museum in the world with a “pure” pay-as-you-wish policy. Their attitude is that all other museums charge one way or another, including for special exhibitions, as if to say: This is inevitable, and now we will too. Actually it should be just the opposite. Pay as you wish is a principle that should be upheld and defended, a point of great pride. The city should be equally proud of it. No one else has this, although they should. It indicates a kind of attitude, like having the Statue of Liberty in our harbor. It is, symbolically speaking, a beacon.

[Smith says above, “. . . if our culture and school systems placed more emphasis on learning about art, people would grow up with more of a museum habit.” Several times, I’ve said that very same thing about theater and the arts in general.  In “Degrading the Arts” (posted on 13 August 2009), I went a little further, asserting that there’s a

consequence to good arts education . . ., one that is particularly important to contemplate when the arts are under attack from many quarters in our society.  In a 3 February companion article to . . . two 1993 [New York Times] reports, “Arts Groups Step In to Fill the Gaps,” Glenn Collins pointed out that “early consistent exposure to the arts builds future audiences.”  It also builds a citizenry that values our artistic and cultural heritage instead of being hostile to it.  A citizen who has taken an art, theater, dance, or music course and who is thereafter encouraged to experience and enjoy this part of life is less likely to enlist in the forces that oppose free artistic expression.

It’s a way to defeat the anti-arts policies supported by those who vote to close museums and pull funding for the arts.]

05 January 2018

Art By Indigenous Peoples

[Pursuant to my recent article about my parents’ art collecting (“A Passion for Art,” posted on 21 November), I wrote a little about my father’s connection to the then-private Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.  I’ve also recently been planning a visit downtown to the New York City branch of the National Museum of the American Indian (a report on which should appear within a couple of weeks, though I’ve written on NMAI before on Rick On Theater).  These two preoccupations have prompted me to revive two archival reports, both brief, on exhibits at each of those museums that predate the start of ROT; to round out this post, I’ve added a report I never published on an exhibit of another aboriginal art collection, this time Australian, all under the title “Art by Indigenous Peoples.” ]

(NMAI-New York, 2004)

On Friday, 30 April 2004, my mother and I went down to Bowling Green to the National Museum of the American Indian.  (You may know that a new NMAI is opening later this year on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  The Smithsonian took over this private museum, then simply the Museum of the American Indian and located at 155th and Broadway, in 1989.  It moved into the former U.S. Custom House downtown in ’94.  I don’t remember when the Smithsonian started construction on the D.C. building, and I don’t know if the current collection at what’s called the George Gustav Heye Collection—named for the man who started the private museum with his own collection of American Indian art—will be moved to D.C. [it wasn’t], but the Custom House will remain a satellite facility of NMAI.) 

I caught the review of a show at NMAI just before I left D.C.—The First American Art: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art from 24 April 2004-29 May  2006 at the Heye Center—and suggested to Mom that we check it out when she was here.  Like the Maya exhibit at the National Gallery [4 April to 25 July 2004 in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; report posted on “Theater & Art,” 14 August 2014], the focus of this show is the artistic appeal of the items, not their ethnographic value. 

Of course, there are pots and bowls (including one gorgeous example of Maria Martinez’s black-on-black Pueblo pottery!), baskets, beadwork, carvings, katchina dolls, and such things that you would consider art, even though they were made for use rather than for aesthetic display, but there are also pieces of clothing, saddles and saddle bags, pouches, and other items that would ordinarily be in an anthropological exhibit.  But it was their aesthetics that was under consideration—both in the show at NMAI and in the private collection at the couple’s New York home. 

I was also surprised to see several drawings on paper—pages from books made and illustrated by Indians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, clearly under the influence—and even at the behest—of Euro-Americans.  These illustrations were of Indian subjects, of course, and from an Indian perspective.  As such, they included not only depictions of Indian ceremonies, but also of Indian victories over white invaders.  They may have taken the lead of the dominant European culture, but they didn’t cop out!  I never knew the Indians did this kind of thing—at least not until modern times when Indian artists adopted and adapted Western techniques for their own themes.

The First American Art is a medium-sized show—200 objects, but all in one room.  (There are other exhibits, part of the permanent collection, all around, of course, so there’s a lot to see if you want to hang about.  That depends, of course, on how interested you are in Indian art and artifacts.)  Much of the stuff dates from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, but there are some really old things here and there.  A couple of pots from the Pueblo Ancestors (who used to be called Anasazi until the Pueblos objected—it’s apparently really a put-down from another native culture) which were not only beautiful, but in incredibly good condition for crockery that’s over 1000 years old!  (There were also a couple of carved implements from before that—back into BCE and double-digit CE. 

American Indian stuff wasn’t made to last—it was intended to be used until it was used up.  They weren’t made of stuff that stood up against time—no metal or stone; it’s mostly pottery, wood, skins, straw.  Stuff that old is really, really rare!)  I was delighted to find a number of pieces from the Pacific Northwest—work I like very much—and there were even some Inuit/Eskimo items (even though they’re not actually Indians). 

One thing I found annoying, because the exhibit focused on the aesthetics and not the cultural implications, was that, though the items were identified by tribe/culture, there was no indication where these people lived or anything to identify them except their names.  I know some of the peoples exhibited, but many were strange names to me, and it would have been interesting to me to know what part of the country they came from.  Items were grouped strangely—not by region or tribe, not by similarity of the objects or of technique or medium/material—so I couldn’t guess who might have been close to whom when techniques looked alike.  I guess the curators didn’t think that was significant, but I was curious.  Even a map with the tribal areas marked would have been sufficient, or a note on the labels telling the area inhabited by the culture. 

Nonetheless, the objects themselves were really beautiful—many of them truly exquisite.  This show is well worth a visit (I saw a number of things I’d come back for after the place closes for the night—one of Mom’s and my fantasy “midnight shopping trips”!) and the building itself is wonderful—a terrific (re)use of an old Beaux Arts building whose original purpose has expired.  (The customs function moved out in 1973 and the 1907 building was slated for demolition.)  The Smithsonian did an excellent job turning the Custom House into a beautiful exhibit space while preserving the original interior, sort of like a ghost of the building’s past life hovering over its present.  (The southern tip of Manhattan has lots of things to explore.  It’s easily a day’s outing, and on a nice day it’s a good place to spend time wandering around the streets and parks seeking out little-known monuments and historic sites.  NMAI couldn’t be easier to get to—the exit of the Bowling Green subway station on the IRT Lexington Avenue Line is right in front of the building’s entrance.) 

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(NMAfA, 2007)

On the afternoon of Thursday, 15 February 2007, my mother and I drove down to the National  Mall in Washington and checked out a small exhibit of the Walt Disney-Tishman Collection which had opened at the National Museum of African Art that day.  The exhibit, African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection, consists of 88 items from the 525-piece collection which Disney donated to the Smithsonian in 2005. 

After my father returned in 1967 from serving at the embassy in Bonn, he was introduced to Warren Robbins (1923-2008), a man who had had the same job there, cultural attaché, prior to my dad.  (Robbins had the job from 1958 to 1960; Dad had held the post from 1965 to 1967.)  When he retired from the Foreign Service, Robbins settled in Washington, and one day he read that the townhouse that had been the Capitol Hill home of Frederick Douglass, Lincoln’s Recorder of Deeds for Washington, was up for sale.  He decided it would be a shame if the house were sold and torn down or converted into a condominium, losing the original historic residence forever. 

Robbins had some family money so he bought the Douglass house without knowing what he was going to do with it at first.  He ultimately determined that it should house African art, which he himself had collected for some time, and he set about establishing the Museum of African Art in 1964, the first museum in the United States devoted exclusively to the art and culture of Africa.  Eventually, with the help of a Rockefeller Foundation grant, the MAA expanded to the nearby houses—nine ultimately—and included a display of modern Western art alongside the African pieces that had inspired them—works by artists like Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso.  (There was also a room that had been Douglass’s office in the house that was furnished as it might have been in his day.) 

My father worked for Robbins in these years on a volunteer basis as director of development, and we became very interested in African art as a consequence.  (After the expansion and redesign financed by the Rockefeller grant, the museum had a reopening gala in the spring of 1971, the time I was stationed at Fort Holabird in nearby Baltimore.  Hubert Humphrey (1911-78), the former vice president, was an honorary chairman of the museum board; Senator Humphrey—he returned to the Senate in 1970—couldn’t attend, so, attired in my army dress blues, I escorted Muriel (1912-98), his wife, to the reopening.  Now that was a formidable—and delightful—lady, in the full meaning of that word!) 

In August 1979, the Smithsonian Institution acquired the MAA and established a home for it on the Mall in an underground facility (next to the similarly-constructed Sackler Gallery of Asian Art) beside the old Smithsonian Castle.  The current museum was begun in 1983 and completed in 1987.  [I have posted an article on ROT, “The National Museum of African Art,” recounting this history in more detail on 19 January 2015.]

I hadn’t visited the NMAfA for long time, and this new exhibit sounded exciting—the Disney-Tishman collection became famous for two reasons.  The first is that, lacking a home of its own, it has often been out of sight for long periods, making it a sort of legend among African-art enthusiasts.  The second, and more significant, is that it contains some unique examples of art from the African cultures of, mostly, West Africa from Liberia to Nigeria.  The collection had been assembled over decades by New York real-estate developer Paul Tishman (If I were a Tishman . . . .) who sold it in 1984 to the Walt Disney Company.  Disney had planned to exhibit it in a specially-built facility at EPCOT Center in Florida, but that pavilion was never built and the collection remained in limbo, going out on loan (to Paris, Jerusalem, L.A., and New York’s Met) from a climate-controlled storage warehouse in California where it was available to scholars and researchers (such as the animators for Disney’s 1994 Lion King), but not publicly open to viewers on a regular basis. 

In 2005, Disney donated the collection to the Smithsonian and the NMAfA has been curating it since then.  The small sample of the collection in African Vision covers 75 cultures from 20 countries; most of the objects are from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but a few are from the 16th through the 18th centuries.  (Objects of African art, like those of Native Americans, seldom last very long for two reasons: they are made for use, not aesthetic or decorative display, and they are made mostly of perishable materials.  Very old objects are rare.) 

Some of the objects in African Vision were familiar from the years my folks were involved in the original African art museum, like the Bakota reliquary figure, a stunning stylized face of brass and wood from Gabon, and others were new to me, such as one virtually naturalistic figure from Madagascar of a warrior carved from wood and painted.  Needless to say, there are lots of masks and carved figurines, mostly of women, though they differ greatly in iconography, size, and style from culture to culture.  There are several carved doors, a symbol of status in an African village, and one carved stool, usually the perch of the headman. 

There are several pieces that clearly show the influence of European exploration, including the oldest item in the exhibit, a hunting horn from Sierra Leone carved from a single elephant’s tusk which is dated to about 1500.  Not only are there carvings of letters from the Latin alphabet, but the horn displays the coats-of-arms of both Spain and Portugal.  (It was apparently commissioned by the crown prince of Portugal as a gift for the king of Spain.)  

The most curious piece of this kind is a small 17th-century copper-alloy sculpture from the Congo of a man in a crucifixion-like posture.  The museum label explains that the cross (which is missing from this item) is a portentous design in Bakongo iconography.  The crucifixes worn by the European missionaries caught the attention of the Africans, and they appropriated the form, without necessarily the religious implication, for their own uses.  (This figure was almost certainly mounted on a wooden cross, which has been lost or decayed.)  

Among the most beautiful and intricate works, however, are the few beaded pieces, including a Yoruba crown (Nigeria) and an elaborate scabbard for a ceremonial staff, covered in the glass beads that are the frequent medium for African beadwork.  Unlike American Indian beadwork I’ve seen, the African beadwork here is not flat; it’s full of relief, some of it quite high, with full human figures and faces of both people and animals raised from the surface. 

Western artists of the early years of the 20th century discovered the imagery of Africa, but it astonishes me that the general public, even the art-consuming public, relegated African art to the realms of anthropology and ethnology rather than art until relatively late in the 20th century.  Remember that Warren Robbins’s museum, started in the last third of the century, was the first of its kind; even American Indian art had by then been long accepted as an extraordinary aesthetic accomplishment.  I remember being immediately taken with the sophistication, not to mention the pure beauty, of the pieces I saw when my parents first took me over to the MAA on Capitol Hill.  The Bakota reliquaries I saw then and the Bambara antelopes from Mali remain among the most stunning pieces of art I have ever seen still today.  How could anyone overlook that?  (Yes, I know: it’s ethnocentrism and racism—I still don’t get it.)

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(Katzen Arts Center, 2009)

On Saturday, 26 September 2009, Mom and I drove over to the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center on Ward Circle to have a look at an exhibit that was of interest to my mother (John Dreyfuss: Inventions, an exhibit of sculpture by a Washington artist with whose parents and grandparents Mother had been acquainted), but which underwhelmed me, to put it succinctly.  The Katzen Center, however, had several other collections on exhibit and we wandered through the museum to see what we could see. 

Of most interest was a display called Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors (10 September-8 December 2009), on tour from the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.  (This is an abbreviated exhibit—90 works by 31 artists; the full show, which often contained included nearly twice as many artworks, toured Australia starting in 2007.)  It’s an assembly of pieces by Aboriginal artists from every state and territory of Australia.  It’s not entirely accurate to call it “indigenous” art because, like the Inuit whom I discussed recently on my blog (see “Pudlo Pudlat, Inuit Artist,” 28 September 2009), some native Australians didn’t have much in the way of decorative art before colonialism.  The works shown here, though entirely sui generis, are frequently derived from styles and techniques learned from Europeans (including video art).  The materials used are indigenous (several pieces were works on bark), though, and application of the techniques is unique. 

What is most fascinating about the collection is that all the works express some sort of political point, often about the displacement of the tribe from which the artist comes or the destruction of the habitat and environment in which the people were living.  The exhibition’s “very existence acknowledges a country’s history of state-mandated racism,” observed Jessica Dawson in her Washington Post review.  That’s why the exhibit was subtitled Culture Warriors.