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A native sensibility to Autry exhibition

The Griffith Park museum enlisted the aid of 13 Indian artisans for a display of traditional baskets drawn from the Southwest Museum's vast collection.

January 10, 2010|By Suzanne Muchnic
  • June Pardue, left, and Carol Emarthle-Douglas display items they made for an initial weekend marketplace.
June Pardue, left, and Carol Emarthle-Douglas display items they made… (Bret Hartman / For The Times )

When June Pardue got the call at her home in Sutton, Alaska, her response wasn't yes or no. It was: "How did you find me?"

For Carol Emarthle-Douglas, who lives in suburban Seattle, the question was how to fit the invitation into her schedule.

But one by one, 13 American Indian basket weavers -- in Arizona, Nevada, California, Michigan, Louisiana and beyond -- were tracked down by Los Angeles' Southwest Museum#23lummis and enlisted as consultants for “The Art of Native American Basketry: A Living Tradition,” a revealing exhibition at the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park.

The display of more than 250 objects, drawn from the Southwest's trove of nearly 14,000 North American baskets and mostly made by women, spotlights an underexposed component of Southern California's artistic riches. It also presents the clearest evidence that the museum subscribes to a current way of thinking about how to display the cultural heritage of Native Americans: with their help.

"If we are not working with Native Americans, we are not doing an exhibition," says Steven M. Karr, the Southwest's interim executive director and lead curator of the show. "We are not interested in exhibiting things based solely on our institutional viewpoint. If you are going to look at a particular artistic expression, such as basketry, it's essential to include the interpretation, nuance and perspective of people who continue to participate in it."

The Southwest Museum of the American Indian, L.A.'s oldest museum, was chartered in 1907 and opened in 1914 in a Mission Revival building on Mt. Washington. In 2003, exhausted by chronic financial problems, it merged with the Autry Museum under the umbrella of the Autry National Center. Since then, the Autry has spent more than $7.5 million to repair the Southwest's building and conserve its 250,000-piece collection of Native American art and artifacts.

The Autry recently dropped a controversial expansion plan, but the exhibition program is forging ahead. The basket show, which runs through Nov. 7, launches a series celebrating parts of the Southwest's collection that have been out of the public eye for decades, languishing in storage or undergoing conservation.

Visitors enter through a glass-encased, floor-to-ceiling display of collection highlights, meant to "create an immediate sense of awe and interest in these beautiful items," Karr says. They include finely woven vessels, boxes and feathered containers as well as enormous food-gathering and storage baskets adorned with geometric patterns. In the main gallery, a tabletop map lays out the 11 regions covered in surrounding exhibits.

Made from the late 19th to the early 21st century, the baskets include rare and valuable items such as a circa 1913 lidded container with a knob handle, fashioned in a "stacked wood" design by Elizabeth Hickox, of Karuk/Wiyot heritage. A willow coiled basket with a redbud and bracken fern root pattern is a 1909 work by Dat-So-la-Lee, a highly regarded Washo weaver.

The consultants' job was to choose objects representing their tribal heritage and provide information about how the baskets were made and used. Working at home, they made their selections from images viewed on computers. The museum's video crew visited some of the artists and shot footage of them at work, which is screened on monitors in the exhibition. The staff also conducted telephone interviews with the consultants, recording comments that appear on labels and in an audio tour.

"This way of working is time consuming," Karr says. "It's the only way to present their views and voices directly and immediately."

Many years of experience

Pardue, whose heritage is a mix of Alutiiq and Inupiaq, started weaving as a child, 46 years ago. She chose 15 objects for the Arctic/Subarctic section, including a basket made of seal hide and a pair of moisture-absorbing socks woven of wild grasses. "When I began looking at the images," she says, "my first thought was to be fair to the Alaskan nation and make sure I chose baskets that represented all the regions."

Pardue had hundreds of potential choices. Emarthle-Douglas, whose ancestors are Northern Arapaho and Seminole, had relatively few contenders for the Plains section of the show. Plains people moved frequently, and many of their baskets have been lost, she says, but the museum has examples of painted leather trunks, sometimes called Indian suitcases. As part of an ongoing effort to update its collection, the museum also commissioned each artist to create a basket.

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