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Review

Seekers and Travellers: Contemporary Art of the Pacific Northwest Coast

By Gary Wyatt

November 4, 2013

Review By Martha Black

Seekers and Travellers is the final volume in a trilogy of popular publications by Gary Wyatt that showcase contemporary Northwest Coast art. It follows the format of the previous books, Faces: Contemporary Masks of the Northwest Coast (1994) and Mythic Beings: Spirit Art of the Northwest Coast (1999), pairing extended captions with excellent full-page photographs by Kenji Nagai and including an introduction by Wyatt. The text for each of the thirty-six works was written by, or with, the artist. This may be unusual for an art book, as Wyatt claims, but is a common strategy for exhibition labels and the book’s resemblance to an exhibition catalogue is not surprising, since Wyatt is a proprietor of one of the world’s foremost commercial galleries for contemporary First Nations art and the works presented were presumably shown at, and perhaps sold by, his Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver over the past fifteen years: the earliest work included is Joe David’s Revered Enemy from 1996, and most were made between 2000 and 2011. Most of the works featured are masks, headdresses, and other wood carvings, but mixed media constructions, weavings (including Meghann O’Brien’s T’lina Ravenstail Robe and William White’s innovative cedarbark and wool basket), argillite figure groups by Christian White, masterful bracelets by Shawn Hunt and Richard Adkins, and glass sculptures by Preston Singletary are here are well. Short artists’ biographies contribute to the book’s value as a reference. Wyatt’s Introduction, however, is less useful. His accounts of early migrations and settlement, origins of the art form, European contact (which focuses on Alaska, perhaps for American readers of this co-publication with University of Washington Press), and even the section on contemporary Northwest art are perfunctory. Most puzzling is the classification of works as Traditional, Cross-Cultural, or Contemporary. Similar works appear in each category and the thematic divisions seem arbitrary. Robert Davidson’s Shark Mask, for example, is classed as Traditional, his comparable Dogfish Mask is Contemporary, but his Butterfly Headdress (Sdla k’amm) is for some reason Cross-Cultural. While Ehwep Syuth (To Share History and Culture) by John Marston commemorates a cultural exchange with New Guinea and is clearly cross-cultural in imagery, materials, and intention, other works appear to have been categorized as Cross-Cultural because of the artists’ mixed ancestral influences. Is it imagery that has become associated with the repatriation of ancestral remains across cultural and national boundaries that makes Davidson’s Butterfly Headdress Cross-Cultural? One wonders if Wyatt or the artists made the categorizations. My other questions concern contrasts between an artist’s expressed intention and the results, the insistence on elaborate symbolism, the absence of critique, and the mechanics of the art market. Wyatt touches on the establishment of the Vancouver and Seattle markets for Northwest Coast art in the 1960s and the roles of collectors in their subsequent development. It would be interesting to know specifics of this history. Because of the unexplained role of the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in the availability, and perhaps creation of, the works showcased here (Isabel Rorick, whose Spring Emerging Purse Bag was made for an exhibition at the gallery, is the only artist who mentions the connection), some insight into how Wyatt and other dealers work would be welcome as well. Perhaps Wyatt’s next book will tell us more about the significant market that he helped to create and continues to develop, which has made this useful compendium of contemporary work possible.

Seekers and Travellers: Contemporary Art of the Pacific Northwest Coast
By Gary Wyatt 
Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012. 160 pp $ 29.95 paper