According to the creation mythology of Northwest Coast Indians, their ancestors emerged from the heavens and landed on Earth in a dazzling blaze of light. Whether they appeared in the form of a wolf, a bear, a sun or a moon, the forefathers descended from an effervescent sky, arrived on Earth amid a blinding aura, then transformed themselves into human progenitors.
The images evoked by these legends are extraordinarily powerful. So it's really no wonder that the indigenous people of Alaska and northwestern Canada have a long-standing tradition of carving masks that define their origin and place in the cosmos.
No wonder either that "Down From the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast" is the title of a major traveling exhibition, opening Thursday at the Southwest Museum at LACMA West. As the Canadian exhibition curators might say if they spoke the American vernacular form of English, choosing the title was "a no-brainer."
But only to those in the know. Visitors who haven't a clue to Northwest Coast creation mythology and think of the masks in terms of exotic decorative objects have much to learn from the landmark show of 145 masks. Covering 200 years of history, the exhibition represents 10 culturally distinct First Nations that inhabit the area stretching from the northern portion of Washington state to southeastern Alaska.
"This is the most complex, varied view one could see in a traveling exhibition," said Peter Macnair, an independent scholar who was curator of anthropology at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria for more than 30 years. Macnair organized the show for the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, Canada, with Robert Joseph, a Kwakwaka'wakw chief, writer and curator, and Bruce Grenville, the gallery's senior curator.
"There are institutions that have 500 Northwest Coast masks in their collections nailed to the wall," Macnair said, speaking by telephone from Vancouver. "But in the sense of presenting a basic story line, addressing the issues--the cosmological view from the native point of view, including that of a Native American who not only guided the look of the exhibit but consulted with all the tribal nations in British Columbia, Washington and Alaska--we think this is a unique and first-time experience."
The show is also an unusually ambitious project for the Southwest Museum, which has a renowned collection of Native American art but struggles financially and generally lacks the space to present large traveling exhibitions. Based in a historic but inadequate building in Mount Washington, the museum gained considerable visibility last year by opening a satellite facility at LACMA West, the former May Co. building now owned and operated by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
For the first time during the next few months, the Southwest will have an even larger presence on Wilshire Boulevard. "Down From the Shimmering Sky" will be installed in the temporary gallery at LACMA West, home to "Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam" and, more recently, a show of Impressionist works from Washington's National Gallery of Art. The Southwest's LACMA West space will be closed for reinstallation until mid-February, but when it reopens, with "Siksika: Within the Circle of Life"--a show of Walter McClintock's photographs of Blackfeet people and related objects from the museum's collection--the Southwest will occupy about two-thirds of the ground floor at LACMA West.
For Duane King, director of the Southwest Museum, hosting "Down From the Shimmering Sky" is an opportunity to present "an unparalleled achievement in artistic creativity" and thus encourage interest in Native American art. Displaying the masks in a high-profile, centrally located facility known as a showcase for popular Impressionist and Postimpressionist art also gives the Southwest a chance to broaden its audience, he said.
The mask show opened in Vancouver in June 1997, then traveled to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario; the Portland Art Museum in Oregon; and the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla. Los Angeles is the final venue.
A major exhibition of Northwest Coast art is a rare occurrence in Southern California. But even in Canada, where the material is much more familiar, "Down From the Shimmering Sky" was a notable project that exemplifies changing attitudes about the display of Native American art, Macnair said.
"In Canada, Native American art is generally found in the museum rather than the art museum or art gallery, as we call them here. But the Vancouver Art Gallery has been moving over the last decade into presenting Native American art. They have featured the great living Northwest Coast artists Robert Davidson and Bill Reid. In keeping with their commitment to provide a venue for this sort of thing, they came up with this idea for a mask exhibit," he said.