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Meant to Impress : Artwork From a Once-Devastated Culture--That of the Indians of the Northwest Coast--Comes to Life in a New Show at the Southwest Museum

March 01, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is a Times staff writer.

This is an art form that clanks its jaws, raises its forehead and sprouts a fanlike topknot. This is art that stares at you through big, blank eyes, develops a drippy nose or runs around with its head cut off.

The art of the Northwest Coast Indians is made to be noticed, and some 100 examples--wooden masks, headdresses, costumes and utensils, metal boxes and jewelry, stone carvings and graphics--have just gone on view at the Southwest Museum in an exhibition called "The Legacy." All were made during the past 150 years by members of eight tribal groups: Coast Salish, Westcoast, Bella Coola, Southern and Northern Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, Haida and Tlingit. These Indians, inhabitants of the rocky coastal area that runs from Northern California to Yakutat Bay in Alaska, developed a rich narrative tradition by inventing mythical explanations for the facts of a hard, maritime life. Their art incorporates that tradition in carved and painted objects that are densely populated with animal and human motifs, worked out according to systematic styles.

"This is display art, not a secret thing," says Kevin Neary, a curator at the British Columbia Provincial Museum in Victoria, which originated the exhibit. "The people who make and use it are trying to impress as many people as they can." Calmly explaining how the brightly painted masks and headdresses spring into animated life during ceremonial dances, transforming the supernatural into visible form, Neary points to some cannibal bird masks. Their hinged foreheads raise and their great beaks snap and chatter when manipulated by Southern Kwakiutl dancers.

There is an elaborate transformation headdress, constructed by Westcoast artist Tim Paul, that combines nested heads with a wood fan, which spreads into a painted sun design. Beau Dick's Southern Kwakiutl mask for a grotesque clown who performs between serious ceremonial dances has cloth strips of "mucus" hanging from his hooked nose. Equally bizarre is Dick's bloody female head that serves as a prop in a performance featuring a woman who proves her supernatural power by appearing to survive decapitation.

Not all the art displayed in "The Legacy" moves, makes noise, or shocks the uninitiated with its evocations of mythical feats and real life, but all the pieces assert themselves through bold forms, sharp contrasts and stylized human or animal motifs. A dogfish mask made by Haida Indian Robert Davidson has zigzag teeth and a sweeping snout, while a mountain-goat design decorates a hat woven of spruce root by an unknown artist from the same tribe. A carved creature with an oversized head, thought to represent an otter or mink, adorns a wooden spindle whorl from the Coast Salish area.

The art, Neary says, is "a sort of language." The same motifs turn up on house fronts, spoons, boxes and masks. And, aside from their mundane and ceremonial functions, objects like these serve as family crests, signifying the owners' mythic origins.

The familiar examples of Northwest Coast art are totem poles, masks and other artifacts displayed in museums throughout the United States and Europe. "Most people think of this as a culture that is dead and gone," Neary says--a perception that was dangerously close to true a few decades ago. The Canadian Indian population had been decimated by disease during the 19th Century, and their culture attacked by church and state.

"In the 1880s the government had an avowed policy of transforming native people into red white people," Neary says. Among other dictates, parents were required to send their children to schools where English was spoken and the curriculum was designed by whites.

The action most devastating to Northwest art came from 1884 to 1951, when legislation banned Indian ceremonies. These events--often misunderstood as meaningless giveaway extravaganzas--are vehicles for the transfer of power and the renewal of tradition. During potlatch ceremonies, for example, the host sets forth a lavish spread, and those who accept the food and gifts validate his agenda, which might acknowledge an inheritance or claim a family privilege. Such ceremonies are strongly tied to art, for Indian kin groups believe that they have an exclusive right to particular mythic origins and to display associated design motifs.

At the same time that it was becoming increasingly difficult for Canadian Indians to sustain their traditions, they also lost most of the objects that had preserved those traditions. "There was an artifact run in the late 19th Century. Every museum had to have a totem pole. Collectors flooded the area and cleaned out the villages," Neary says. The 101-year-old British Columbia Provincial Museum compiled a "very good collection" of Northwest Coast material, "probably the best representation of the entire coast," Neary says; other museums acquired spectacular holdings in greater depth.

Today, though, an artistic revival and a change in official attitudes have turned the situation around.

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