28 Juni 2008

Why the long face?

Native art exhibit hosted by Evergreen’s Longhouse Education, Cultural Center

by Paul Schrag
Jun 26, 2008

The Washington State History Museum and the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center at The Evergreen State College will host the third annual “In the Spirit Northwest Native Arts Market and Festival” June 28 and 29. Hosted at the History Museum, In the Spirit will showcase North American native culture as it moves into the new millennium, says curator Mellissa Parr, who characterizes artistic offerings such as Seneca artist Linley Logan’s Mosquito Mask as gifts rather than commodities. The values of the gifts, she says, are in their power to provoke feeling — awe, revulsion, elation — sometimes all at once. And while many arts festivals promise to move your soul, only to fall embarrassingly short, “In the Spirit” sounds like it just might deliver on its name.

“Artists are special people because they tell us what they see,” says Parr. “And you can relate to it or you don’t. If you relate, you can hate it or love it, but it makes you feel something. Then, sometimes, you see something that is beyond your conception, but it speaks to our soul.”
A quick description of Linley Logan’s Mosquito Man Feeding From Himself Out of Gluttony Mask will provide a clear picture of what Parr means. The simultaneous complexity, schism, holism and simplicity of the Mosquito Mask represents so many aspects of what “In the Spirit” is about — the gentle complexity of native cosmology, the colonization of native lands, the colonization of native consciousness, the struggle to conserve tradition while emerging with the world — all these themes are nested within the work of Logan and other artists.

Logan describes his contribution — a mask of the archetypal Mosquito Man crafted from materials ranging from grass to plastic cowboys and Indians — as a meditation on the duality that emerges as concepts are filtered through native oral traditions. The Mosquito Man emerges in oral traditions on both coasts, despite physical separation by thousands of miles. The archetypal story of the Mosquito Man — its form anyway — emerges in dozens of other traditions as well, beginning with the story of Tiamat, the great dragon of Babylonian mythology, who is slain by the warrior Marduk, her body becoming the universe we live in.
In Haudenosaunee oral traditions, the meta-story emerges as a giant mosquito who feeds on the blood of the bodies of humans, killing entire villages full of people. Warriors set out to destroy the mosquito, hunting it down and hacking the dead monster’s body into tiny pieces. From the blood of the giant mosquito small swarms of insects emerge — mosquitoes, which continue to feed on human blood. Pacific Northwest natives tell the story of the Dzoonekgwa, a cannibal man-monster who stole children and ate human flesh. When Dzoonekgwa was finally killed, his body was burned in a bonfire, the sparks of his burning body giving birth to mosquitoes who carry on the cannibal’s work on a smaller scale.

The construction of the Mosquito Mask, and the materials used, reveal further layers upon layers, upon layers …

The red frame of the mast represents the Southeast Alaskan and Northwest coast dance robe border, the red ribbon border incorporated in Haudenosaunee clothing encloses the face and Mosquito figure as if in a coffin. The grass headdress represents the home of the mosquitoes, and red forks represent both the antennae of the mosquito and the pointed, needle-like utensils that many humans use to devour their food. The Mosquito Man’s headdress, made from plastic Indians and cowboys, elucidates the continual battle waged with mosquitoes today, as well as the Mosquito Man’s coupe — bites symbolizing the insect’s success in battle. The plastic men also represent stereotypes that native peoples are challenged to escape and survive.

Like the blood drained by the mosquito, “We seem to be swallowed up by the dominant stereotypes that typecast who we are as a people,” says Logan.

Red bottle caps signify deer hooves used to make traditional leggings and rattles used during sacred dance. Metal tobacco can lids supplant shells and other natural trinkets used to create bangled, traditional women’s dresses. Logan uses seemingly tawdry materials as substitutes as “an artistic statement of our (native people’s) static culture in a contemporary environment of survival.”

Is your soul stirring yet?

The “In the Spirit Arts Market & Festival” will feature works and demonstrations by Northwest carvers, printmakers, weavers and bead artists, to name a few. Native singers, musicians, dance groups will perform throughout the weekend, and specialty food vendors will offer native cuisine. A special collector’s seminar and art appraisal will help patrons select and collect quality native artworks. All outdoors festival activities are free.

[Washington State History Museum, In the Spirit: Contemporary Northwest Native Arts Market & Festival, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., June 28, noon to 5 p.m., June 29, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.272.3500, outdoor events free]

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