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Weaving a modern identity

Exhibit at Clark College’s Archer Gallery shows native artwork doesn’t belong in past

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 12, 2016, 6:01am
6 Photos
A pair of high heels, titled &quot;Too Haida&quot; by Lisa Telford, are on display at a contemporary native basketry exhibit at Clark College&#039;s Archer Gallery in Vancouver.
A pair of high heels, titled "Too Haida" by Lisa Telford, are on display at a contemporary native basketry exhibit at Clark College's Archer Gallery in Vancouver. (Photos by Natalie Behring/ The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Quick Response scan-codes and video-game characters probably aren’t what come to mind when you picture American Indian basketry.

Todd Clark wants you to think again.

Clark is the founder of an art-exhibition project called IMNDN — that’s not an acronym but a clever compression of the phrase “I am Indian” — which is aimed at bringing top-quality artworks by contemporary native artists to the public eye. Clark, a member of the Wailaki tribe of Northern California, went to school and worked for several museums in the Los Angeles area before moving to Vancouver and developing IMNDN, which previously hosted a show at Marylhurst University by contemporary Native artists.

In his early museum experiences, Clark said, he was struck by how native art and the native presence in general were “segregated and sepia-toned” — as if they were anthropological topics only, and belonged exclusively to a historical era. It was as if time had stopped in 1890 or so, Clark said, jokingly — but then he stopped chuckling.

In a certain way it’s true, he said: Native cultures really were “stopped” in the late 1800s, as whites aggressively expanded westward and many native nations were forced to accept government education and customs and move from their homelands to Oklahoma.

If You Go

• What: “Woven: The Art of Contemporary Native Basketry,” featuring works of 13 renowned contemporary native artists from across the country.

• When: Runs through April 23. Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Artists reception: 4 to 7 p.m. April 2. Weaving talk, workshops: 10 a.m. to noon, 1 to 5 p.m. April 3.

• Where: Archer Gallery (FAC 101), Clark College, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way, Vancouver.

• Cost: Free; see website for workshop fees.

• Information: www.IMNDN.org

Staging shows of sophisticated, cutting-edge artworks is one way of proving that Native Americans are alive and well and making contributions to today’s world, Clark said. Even while there’s an unmistakable grounding in the traditions of the past, he said, exhibits such as “Woven: The Art of Contemporary Native Basketry,” which is now open at Clark College’s Archer Gallery, demonstrate that contemporary native art — even basket art, an ancient tradition — has one foot in the complex realities of today and leans toward an even more complex future.

Take a close look at the geometric designs on baskets by Joe Feddersen, a member of the confederated Colville tribes of Northeastern Washington. Those aren’t stylized trees and decorative diamond patterns — they’re QR codes, high-voltage power-transmission towers and interstate-freeway high-occupancy-vehicle lanes.

Feddersen “really is the king of blending traditional and contemporary imagery,” Clark said.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, you’ll find gleaming baskets by Gail Tremblay, Mi’kmaq/Onondaga of Olympia, which are made entirely of film celluloid, a comment on the Hollywood movies, TV serials and documentary films that are responsible for most of our stereotyped ideas about American Indians, Clark said. And a pair of gorgeously detailed baskets by Shan Goshorn, Cherokee of Oklahoma, turn out to be constructed of sliced-apart strips of text and photographs, treaties with tribes that were endlessly offered and endlessly broken by the federal government, pictures of the people who were betrayed by these treaty abrogations.

Clearly the puzzle of past trauma and current identity is still being solved, Clark said. So it’s nice to note that not every artwork in “Woven” is a protest against or recollection of some historic crime.

“Some talk about politics and issues, but some are just fun,” he said, pointing to a pair of small baskets by Lisa Telford, Haida of Seattle, in the shape of truly wicked high-heeled pumps. And keep an eye out elsewhere in the exhibit for “Frogger,” the little green video game hero.

And here are glittering, multicolored baskets made of copper wire and glass beads that appear to be floating in space; they are by Bernice Akamine of Hawaii and play on the idea of glass fishing-net floats, Clark said.

In each of these cases, Clark said he enjoys “foregrounding” the artists as individuals, with names worth remembering and careers worth following. It’s completely different than that “anthropological” view of basketry of the past, he pointed out — with the particular basket artists forgotten and their incredibly complex works viewed as “anonymous examples” of a long-ago lifestyle.

The “Woven” artists are very much alive and active — and you can meet and greet several of them on the first weekend in April. First, there will be an artists reception from 4 to 7 p.m. April 2 at Archer Gallery; a free artists talk, featuring Joe Feddersen, Gail Tremblay, Bernice Akamine, Pat Courtney Gold and Shan Goshorn, is set for 10 a.m. to noon the next day in Foster Auditorium.

And that afternoon, you’ll be able to try your own hand at weaving. Master weavers Akamine, Lisa Telford, Dawn Nichols Walden and Kelly Church will teach workshops from 1 to 5 p.m. in classrooms in the Foster building. There is a materials fee; visit IMNDN.org to learn more.