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Review

Interventions: Native American Art for Far-flung Territories

By Judith Ostrowitz

November 4, 2013

Review By Leslie Dawn

 

Judith Ostrowitz skilfully investigates the complex and innovative strategies used by First Nations artists since the 1950s to engage with museum, art gallery, restoration, and tourist initiatives. She shows how various individuals and groups have strategically employed these new, non-traditional spaces for the public display of their ongoing cultures, identities, and arts. She also demonstrates various artists’ involvement with new media, contexts, and audiences. Her five carefully chosen case studies are broad in scope and involve cross-border and cross-cultural negotiations within a global environment. 

The first chapter summarizes the totem pole restoration project at the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Provincial Museum, the inception of the Route of the Totems program, and the commission of the ceremonial Queen’s Baton for the Commonwealth Games held in Victoria in 1994. Ostrowitz distinguishes these “de-territorialized” objects from those that occupy traditional locations and cultural contexts. The latter are site-specific, intended for a limited “insider” audience, and have a circumscribed significance, while the former have been transformed into displaced public images for broader “outsider” non-Native audiences that attach their own meanings to the works. Her distinctions, although tending towards the dualistic, are both sound and useful. 

Her necessarily cursory coverage of the individual projects, however, makes them appear less nuanced then they actually were. At times, the abbreviated histories undercut her aim of showing how culturally and politically savvy artists like Mungo Martin, Ellen Neal, Bill Reid, Simon Charlie, James Henderson, and Art Thomson had to be to succeed in their aims and just how complex their individual motives were.

The second, and largest, chapter outlines the complex consultations involved in designing the displays in the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Here, Ostrowitz sorts out the complex ways in which a host of First Nations advisors exercised agency in shaping the building and its displays. She also enumerates the myriad problems that arose in articulating a common message that could communicate distinct cultures and histories in an institution dedicated to including all American First Nations groups under a general, universalized category.

Chapter 3 focuses on the interactions between Northwest Coast groups and non-Native texts. Ostrowitz first looks at ceremonies held primarily among the Tlingit and shows how membership and social structure within groups has been determined both internally by the groups themselves and by consulting ethnographic records. The second part investigates the non-conventional works done at the Gitanmax School of Northwest Coast Native Art at the museum at ‘Ksan, which defied the rules of formline design formulated by Bill Holm and others. Again, her innovative approach and broader vision lead to new insights.

The penultimate chapter is the least satisfactory. Ostrowitz’s excursion into Native artists working in digital space is perfunctory and already outdated. Her primary example of positive results, an interactive site established by the Maltwood Museum in Victoria on silkscreen prints, has been taken offline due to problems with its content. In total, however, the diversity of examples and tactics that Ostrowitz uncovers serves as a testament to the dedication of First Nations artists in retaining control of their arts and cultures, which she positions as having survived into the present. 

Interventions: Native American Art for Far-Flung Territories by Judith Ostrowitz
University of Washington Press, 2009.  240 pp. $45.00 cloth