15 January 2018

'Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait'


A number of years ago, when I was doing research on Leonardo Shapiro, the avant-garde stage director about whom I’ve written several times on this blog, I looked into one of the artists he named as influences, Pudlo Pudlat (1916-92), an Inuit painter and printmaker.  (I’ve blogged about Leo a number of times for Rick On Theater; see, for example, “Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos),” 5 August 2009; “Cheerleaders of the Revolution,” 31 October 2009; “Brother, You’re Next,” 26 January 2010; “New York Free Theater,” 4 April 2010; “War Carnival,” 13 May 2010; “‘As It Is In Heaven,’” 25 March 2011; “Acting: Testimony & Role vs. Character,” 25 September 2013; “Shaliko’s Strangers,” 3 and 6 March 2014; “Mount Analogue,” 20 July 2014; and “Shaliko’s Kafka: Father and Son,” 5 and 8 November 2015; as well as “‘Two Thousand Years of Stony Sleep,’” an early piece of writing by Shapiro himself, 7 May 2011.)  I’d never heard of Pudlo—Inuit commonly use only one name and this is how the artist is internationally known—but as I looked more deeply into him and his art, I found an engrossing and revealing subject. 

As readers of ROT know, I fancy myself a devotee of art, so I pursued the story of Pudlo and discovered that the artist, his work, and Inuit art just interested me.  On a visit I made to Quebec City in December 2000, a center of Inuit art, and later one to Vancouver in August 2003, I learned some general facts about the art of the Inuit people, which has an interesting, and I suspect unique, history (which I’ll précis in a moment).  Ever since then, I’ve had an interest in Inuit art so when I read last August that the George Gustav Heye Center, the National Museum of the American Indian branch in lower  Manhattan, was hosting an exhibit of works by three Canadian Inuit artists, I suggested to my friend Diana (who’s my usual theater companion but who also has an abiding interest in art and art museums) that we make a trip downtown to see it. 

We left the visit until the end of run of Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait (10 June 2017-8 January 2018) and didn’t get down to Bowling Green until Sunday, 7 January.  (We were further delayed, beyond plain, old procrastination, by the nor’easter of Thursday, 4 January, the original date of our planned visit to the museum.  At the last minute on the 7th, furthermore, Diana didn’t feel well and dropped out.  I had figured she probably didn’t know Inuit art or New York’s NMAI as neither are well known to the general public.  Part of my reason for going to the show had been to introduce her to both of them, but I went downtown on my own anyway.)  

The word akunnittinni, according to Andrea R. Hanley, the exhibition curator of Santa Fe, New Mexico’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts, loosely means “between us” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people.  (If you are my age or older, you are probably more used to speaking of the people of the arctic as Eskimos but, especially in Canada, the current, and preferred, name is Inuit.)  A Kinngait Family Portrait displays a family gathering among an Inuk grandmother, mother, and daughter: Pitseolak Ashoona, Napachie Pootoogook, and Annie Pootoogook. The three women “are known for illustrating life’s intimacies within their Arctic communities and families, as well as life’s challenges.”  They are the “us” in akunnittinni and what’s “between” them is what the Smithsonian’s press release characterized as a “visual conversation” with one another.

Kinngait, the Inuit name for the remote hamlet of Cape Dorset on Dorset Island in Nunavut, the Canadian territory established as an Inuit homeland in 1999, was the home of Pitseolak, Napachie, and Annie and the Ashoona-Pootoogook family of artists—a family with a strong artistic identity that has contributed significantly to the reputation of Kinngait art.  Kinngait’s nicknamed the “Capital of Inuit Art” and artists from the area are renowned worldwide for their prints, drawings, paintings, and sculptures, produced in places like the now famous Kinngait Studios since the 1940s.  Almost a quarter of the town’s working residents is employed in some aspect of the art business.

Eskimo, which is still used in the U.S., especially in Alaska, refers to several native peoples, including the Inuit.  The term Eskimo is a foreign word applied to the Inuit and other peoples by outside tribes.  Its most likely etymology is a Montagnais word meaning ‘snowshoe-lacer.’  (The Montagnais are a group inhabiting the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec and Labrador.)  In Canada, however, the word is believed to be derived from an Algonquin word that means ‘raw meat-eater,’ and although linguistically this is less likely, the belief is widely held in Canada and the word Eskimo is considered derogatory and racist.  In any case, the Canadian government officially recognizes the people of the far north, including Nunavut, as Inuit, the name these native peoples use to refer to themselves; the name Eskimo is seldom heard in Canada today.  Inuit, by the way, is plural; the singular is Inuk, which means ‘person.’  The native tongue of the Inuit, as I stated above, is Inuktitut, one of the official languages of Nunavut.

The Inuit people were a nomadic culture of hunter-gatherers in the arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska well into the 20th century.  (There are also significant populations of Inuit in Denmark and Russia.)  Following the fish and game of the far north as the ice receded, living in igloos (which means simply ‘house’ and may be made of ice and snow, corresponding to the familiar image we have, but is also commonly built from stone, sod, mud, skins, or any other convenient material), and moving from spot to spot as the hunting, weather, or terrain necessitated. 

Traveling by dogsled across land and in umiaks or the smaller kayaks across water, an Inuit family or clan could not really afford to carry much with them that wasn’t of immediate practical value in their harsh life, so decoration was minimal, and artwork, even on practical items, was uncommon.  (The 2001 Inuit-produced—also -directed and -acted—movie Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner gives a dramatic glimpse of this lifestyle.)  What little there was was carved ivory or bone.  A change occurred in about 1945, however, when the Canadian government encouraged Inuit and other native peoples to settle in towns and villages, learn cultivation and other domestic skills, and give up the nomadic life they’d known for centuries.  I won’t get into the socio-political implications of this change (except to suggest that it wasn’t entirely insensitive and cold-hearted as the world around the Inuit had changed and their subsistence existence was becoming untenable), but the sociological effect was profound.

The Canadian government saw that the move to permanent habitation in towns and villages left many Inuit without traditional livelihoods or even pastimes.  This was mostly true of the men, as the women were able to transfer their traditional responsibilities of homemaking and child-rearing from the nomadic existence to the permanent one with little significant change (except, of course, that they now got their material needs from stores instead of the wild).  The men, on the other hand, were the ones who lost their customary occupations.  Looking around for something with which to replace the lost income and work, the government lit on art and established training programs and outlets for whatever the Inuit produced, even supplying them with the materials they needed. 

In what may be one of the rare examples among artificial cultural redirection, the plan succeeded wildly.  I guess the Inuit had a hidden tribal talent for making terrific art, and they started a co-op in 1958 to market and determine the prices of their work so that they wouldn’t be ripped off by gallery owners and dealers or, in turn, cheat the buying public.  Inuit art took off in popularity and desirability in the south.  Over time, some artists became recognized, such as Pudlo (on whom I blogged on 28 September 2009) and the Ashoona-Pootoogook family, and art museums began organizing exhibitions of Inuit works.  Collectors, first in Canada then in the United States, began to buy the art.  As making art supplanted the fur trade as the region’s principal employment, whole villages lived off the art turned out in their community studios, some making it, some marketing it, some managing the studios; printmaking became a profitable concern. 

Over 70 years now, Inuit art has become established and while it started as naïve work, it now has a sophistication and dynamic that compares easily with the works of American Indian artists in, say, the Taos art colony area (coincidentally, near where Akunnittinni was organized at the IAIA).  In both cases, too, the themes and subjects developed from strict focus on traditional culture to an embrace of the whole universe around them—in the case of the Inuit, the Canada of the Europeans and the technology of the middle- and late-20th-century world.  Though many Inuit artists work in a naturalistic style, carving animals or scenes common to the Canadian north, many others work in symbolist and abstract styles that draw on indigenous images and refer to the style of Inuit art that developed in the post-World War II years (there not having been a true indigenous precursor).  The media used by Inuit artists has expanded as well, from simple carvings to sophisticated soapstone sculpture, painting, drawing, lithography, and all the forms commonly used by Western artists.  Among the most popular subjects I observed in Inuit art when I was in Quebec and later in Vancouver at the other end of the country were native animals, Inuit figures, and the mysterious and majestic inuksuit, a form nearly ubiquitous in the galleries and shops all over both cities.  (I have an Inuit sculpture entitled Inukshuk and I blogged on the subject of the carving in “Inuksuit,” posted on 10 August 2011.)

A little history of NMAI: George Gustav Heye (1874-1957) opened his private Museum of the American Indian to the public in 1922 to house and display his own collection of Native American art.  He’d started collecting in 1903 and he established the Heye Foundation in 1916 to oversee it and promote the study of Indian art and culture.  The museum was located at 155th Street and Broadway in Harlem until it was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and moved to the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in 1994.  The Smithsonian took over Heye’s museum in 1989 and opened the main building for the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in 2004.  The George Gustav Heye Center, now a satellite of the larger NMAI, maintains its own permanent collection (based on Heye’s original holdings) and exhibits. 

The Hamilton Custom House, which also houses the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, the National Archives at New York City, and a branch of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is a splendid Beaux Arts building built in 1907.  It served as the U.S. Custom House in New York City until 1973 (when its customs function was moved to 6 World Trade Center) and in 1979, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) saved the building from demolition.  A restoration having been completed in 1987, the building was renamed for the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury (under whose jurisdiction customs fell until 2003) in 1990 with Moynihan’s sponsorship.  Designed by St. Paul, Minnesota, architect Cass Gilbert (1859–1934), who had once worked for McKim, Mead & White (Washington Arch, 1892; the main campus of Columbia University, 1893-1900; the Brooklyn Museum, 1895; New York’s former Pennsylvania Station, 1910; and the James Farley Post Office in Manhattan, 1913; among many other significant buildings), the custom house is architecturally stunning in its own right.  A National Historic Landmark (1976) and listed on the National Register of Historic Places (exterior and interior, 1972), the custom house on its own is worth a visit.  It’s a magnificent Beaux Arts building with many stunning architectural and artistic details (outlined in “Architecture & History” on the Heye Center webpage at http://nmai.si.edu/visit/newyork/architecture-history/) and serves as a magnificent example of the re-purposing of historic architecture. 

According to Hanley, the art works of Pitseolak, Napachie, and Annie Pootoogook “provide a personal and cultural history of three generations of Inuit women whose art practices included autobiographical narratives and chronicled intimate and sometimes harsh memories and historically resonant moments.”  (Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait, curated by Andrea Hanley, was organized by the IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.  It appeared there at the MoCNA from 22 January through 1 April 2016.)  The Ashoona and Pootoogook works, says Hanley, “also include sardonic references to pop culture, which now infuses everyday life in Kinngait, as well as nuanced depictions of family and village life.”  Patsy Phillips, director of the IAIA, observed: “The grandmother painted more romanticized versions of the story she heard—of how the culture used to be.  The mother drew more of the darker side of the stories she heard [while] the daughter’s were much more current.”

Pitseolak (1904–1983; some accounts give her birth year as 1907 or 1908) was born on Nottingham Island (Tujajuak) in the Hudson Straights in the Northwest Territories (part if which is now Nunavut).  She spent her childhood in several camps on the south Baffin Island (Qikiqtaaluk) coast.  She was a member of one of the last generations of Inuit to grow up in the centuries-old traditions of the North American Inuit—or, as the artist characterized it, “long ago before there were many white men.”  She married Ashoona, a hunter, in 1922 or ’23 in a marriage arranged by her uncle after her father died about a year earlier, and she bore 17 children, only six of whom she raised to adulthood.  (Though some died as children, others, as was the custom, were raised by other Inuit families.)  Pitseolak was the matriarch of a large family of artists, including at least five children—sons Namoonai (1926-2002), Kaka (1928-96), Koomwartok (1930-84), Kiawak (1933-2014), and Ottochie Ashoona (1942-70), all sculptors, and daughter Napachie, a graphic artist—and three grandchildren—Ohitok Ashoona (b. 1952, sculptor), Shuvinai Ashoona, (b. 1961, graphic artist), and Annie Pootoogook (graphic artist).  (A note about Inuit names: Inuktitut has its own writing system, and when names and words are transliterated into English, there are often spelling variations.)  Pitseolak’s husband, Ashoona, died at 40 years of age during an epidemic in the Nettilling Lake area, near the south end of Baffin Island, in the mid-1940s (around 1944 or ’45), leaving Pitseolak to raise their young family on her own. 

Pitseolak, by then in her 50s, settled permanently in Kinngait/Cape Dorset in the early 1960’s where she was encouraged to try drawing as a way to support her family after the death of her husband.  She’s said drawing also served as an emotional support for her, and it’s little wonder that images of motherhood were central to Pitseolak’s art.  She was among the first Inuk in Kinngait to start drawing, beginning with stonecut prints, and one of the most prolific.  Despite the sad circumstances that initiated her drawing and a life of hardship, Pitseolak’s art mostly depicts a positive view of the Inuit way of life remembered from her childhood.  According to Christine Lalonde, Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, “scenes of deprivation or suffering almost never appear in her drawings,” and, indeed, the sample on exhibit at the Heye Center demonstrated this trait (which we’ll see is in contrast to the drawings of her daughter). 

(Stonecut, not to be confused with the more technically complicated lithography, is a process much like woodcut or linocut—all forms of “relief” printing—which the Kinngait printmakers have refined.  The first step is tracing the original drawing onto the smooth surface of a prepared stone.  Using India ink, the printer outlines the drawing on the stone and then chips away the areas that are not to appear in print, leaving the uncut areas raised, or in relief.  The raised area is inked using rollers and then a thin sheet of fine paper is placed over the inked surface and the paper is pressed gently against the stone by hand with a small, padded disc.  Only a single print can be made from each inking of the stone, so the edition takes time, care, and patience.) 

Remembrance of Inuit society of her youth shows up clearly in Pitseolak’s Games of My Youth (stonecut and stencil, 1978), in which four Inuk girls are at play, two of them playing an Inuit ball game while a third is hanging in mid-tackle of an opponent, and in Family Camping in Tuniq Ruins (stonecut and stencil, 1976), with its family of seven Inuit in traditional garb peering out of an igloo.  Another example of this subject is Migration towards Our Summer Camp (lithograph, 1983), a collection of images of a smiling Inuit clan on the move in traditional clothing for a trek through the tundra, wearing backpacks and carrying harpoons, accompanied by dogs and pack animals, transporting fishing and hunting gear.  The most iconic (and earliest) of Pitseolak’s works on display here was the 1969 Dream of Motherhood (color stonecut on paper), a fanciful image of a woman with long braids and her hands in the air, fingers extended, carrying two children atop her head in the hood of her parka.  (The garment is in fact an amauti, a traditional Inuit parka specifically designed for the hood to serve as a baby-carrier.)

Pitseolak made close to 9,000 drawings during her 20 years in Kinngait.  Her prints, rendered in muted, mostly earth colors, have appeared in every annual print collection since her work was first published in 1960.  Her best and most authentic drawings were of “the old Eskimo ways,” as she said, a way of life firmly imprinted on her memory.  In the conventions of Inuit art, this is known as sulijuk, ‘it is true’ or ‘it is realistic’—which indicates artists depicted elements of Inuit life as they saw it, without interpolating much of  their own imagination.  Pitseolak received several honors in her lifetime, and her work has been the subject of several projects.  In 1971, the National Film Board of Canada produced a documentary based on her book, Pitseolak: Pictures out of My Life (McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2003).  In 1974. she was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy and she received the Order of Canada in 1977.  Pitseolak died in 1983 and is buried behind the Anglican Church in Kinngait.  She had promised to work on her drawings and prints until she was no longer able, and she fulfilled the vow.  Her vast legacy of art work is currently on long-term loan at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection near Toronto where it is being photographed, documented, and exhibited.

Born at Sako, a traditional Inuit camp on the southwest coast of Baffin Island, Northwest Territories, Napachie (1938–2002) was the only surviving daughter of Pitseolak; along with her four sculptor brothers, and her graphic-artist sisters-in-law, Mayureak (b. 1946,  wife of Kaka) and Sorosiluto Ashoona (b. 1941, wife of Kiawak), she was part of the prominent and renowned Inuit artist clan.  In the mid-1950s while living at Kiaktuuq, she married sculptor and printmaker Eegyvukluk Pootoogook (1931-2000), son of an important camp leader, Pootoogook (1887-1958), a graphic artist and carver who later become one of the main printers at the Kinngait Studios.  (Like her mother’s, Napachie’s marriage was arranged.)  Napachie, Eegyvukluk, and their 11 children (who included daughter Annie Pootoogook, a third-generation artist) moved to Kinngait in 1965 and, just as her mother had, took up drawing; she sold her first drawings at age 25 (1963) for $20.  Since then, Napachie’s work has been included in almost every annual collection of Kinngait prints.  She created works until her death from cancer at 64, leaving a legacy of over 5,000 prints and drawings.

Napachie used a vigorous, energetic figurative style to bring to life narrative scenes depicting both personal memories and ancient stories depicting local current, mythical, and legendary figures.  Following classes in painting and drawing at the Kinngait Studios, after 1976, she drew landscapes and interiors using notions of spatial composition of Western techniques.  Although many of her early prints and drawings presented a rhapsodic depiction of Inuit spiritual beliefs, the focus of her work since the mid-1970s, as exemplified by those featured in Akunnittinni, was more on recording the traditional home life of the Inuit people, “including,” as the exhibit text put it, “darker aspects that  were left out of her mother’s more idealistic representations.”  

Indeed, according to Will Huffman, marketing manager at Dorset Fine Arts in Toronto, the marketing division of Kinngait Studios, Napachie revealed aspects of her culture that many Inuit would have preferred not be seen by outsiders—a characteristic that reminds me of Native American artist Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), on whom I blogged on 20 March 2011.  This can be seen in 1994’s Alcohol (colored pencil and ink on paper), which depicts a woman holding a small child while handing a kneeling man a bottle of (presumably) liquor—or is she taking it away from him?  On the floor in front of the man—her husband and the father of the toddler?—is a  broken bottle.  He’s holding a fat stick (a weapon?) and his mouth is open wide as if he might be yelling at the woman, while sprawled on the floor behind him is another man, sleeping or passed out.  The reference is clearly the alcoholism that plagues Inuit (as well as other Native American) communities with hints—the stick—of the domestic violence and abuse that is also an endemic problem among Inuit.

In Male Dominance (ink and colored pencil on paper, 1995-96), Napachie presents five weeping women surrounding a man wielding a long knife; on the ground by his knee is a small bow with an arrow.  He’s looking out at us, smiling in self-satisfaction.  The six are connected to each other by a rope, symbolizing the utter dependence of Inuit women on men, who could abduct them as wives, even if they were already married.  (There is, as Hanley, who’s Navajo, puts it, a broad streak of “contemporary indigenous feminist” emphasis in all three artists’ work, but particularly Napachie’s.)  If a man desired another Inuk’s wife, he could just kill his rival and take the man’s wife for his own.  Napachie habitually incorporated inscriptions (in Inktitut, the artist’s only spoken and written tongue), and on Male Dominance, she wrote:

Aatachaliuk is scaring women to ensure his domination, before he claims them as wives, after slaying his male enemies.  He did this to hide his soft side.

Trading Women for Supplies (ink on paper, 1997-98) is a portrayal of a Caucasian captain of a whaler exchanging materials and supplies—a jacket and a duffel bag of cans and boxes—to an Inuit man in a parka for a woman.  “The captain from the bowhead whale hunting ship is trading materials and supplies for the women,” inscribed Napachie.  “As usual, the man agrees without hesitation.”  In the drawing, according to Edward J. Guarino, a retired high school teacher from Yonkers, New York, and Inuit art collector who lent some of his holdings for the show, the artist “documents the sexual exploitation of  Inuit women by men, both Inuit and non-Inuit.”

Arguably the most grotesque and shocking picture in the exhibit was Napachie’s Eating His  Mother’s Remains (ink on paper, 1999-2000).  It’s an image of exactly what the title says: a man “is chopping up and eating his mother’s rump before leaving.   He is also preparing to take the human remains by wrapping them in seal skin and using the rope to bind it.”  While cannibalism wasn’t ever part of the Inuit culture, it was practiced rarely in the event of extreme famine and Pat Feheley, owner of Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto and an expert on Inuit art, wrote: “. . . I expect that someone had told Napachie about this particular man.” 

Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016), born in Kinngait, was the daughter of Napachie and Eegyvukluk, and the granddaughter of Pitseolak.  By the time she was born, the Ashoonas and Pootoogooks were firmly in the middle class as a consequence of their artistic endeavors.  Annie began drawing in 1997 at the age of 28 and quickly developed a preference for scenes from her own life, becoming a prolific graphic artist.  In 2003, Annie’s first print, an etching and aquatint drawn on copper plate, was released.  The image, entitled Interior and Exterior (not included in the NMAI show), is a memory of the artist’s childhood, lovingly recording the particulars of settlement life in Kinngait in the 1970s.  Her first solo exhibition at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto in 2006, and winning that same year the Sobey Art Award (which came with a prize of $50,000 Canadian, the equivalent of about $48,000 U.S. today)—as well as her participation at Documenta 12 (a quinquennial exhibit of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany) and the Montreal Biennale in 2007, established her as the leading contemporary Inuit graphic artist of the period.  At Documenta, Annie exhibited not as a native artist as her predecessors from Kinngait had commonly been classified, but as a modern artist.

After the sudden acclaim, Annie moved from Kinngait to Ottawa in 2007, but the spotlight that had been turned on her wasn’t a positive development for her artistically or personally.  She created little new art in the years following the move (there are no pieces of Annie’s work after the early 2000s in Akunnittinni) and began living on the streets and along the banks of the city’s Rideau River, falling into drug abuse and addiction.  In 2010, she started a relationship with William Watt, who became her common-law husband; they had a daughter in 2012.  (Annie had two older sons, now adults, who were adopted by relatives.  Her daughter, named after her mother, Napachie, was eventually also adopted.)  Around that year, she began drawing again, making one sketch a day which she sold for cigarette money, about $25 or $30 each; her Kinngait works were selling for $1,600 to $2,600 a piece at her Toronto gallery. 

Four years later, on 19 September 2016, 47-year-old Annie Pootoogook’s body was found in the Rideau River in Ottawa.  While her death hasn’t been ruled a homicide—the cause of death was drowning, but the medical examiners couldn’t determine if the renowned artist drowned herself or if she was drowned by someone else—the Ottawa Police Service continues to investigate the death as suspicious.

Annie’s artwork, mostly drawings on paper with ink and colored pencil, broke with conventional traditions of Inuit art.  Her subjects were not arctic animals or serene scenes of nomadic existence from a time before settlement life; rather, her images reflected her experiences as a female artist growing up, living, and working in contemporary Canada.  Her art depicted a community experiencing transition and conflict as the old ways of her grandmother and mother clashed with modern Canada.  (In this aspect, Annie was following in a path blazed by one of Inuit art’s most illustrious old-timers, Pudlo, who made room in his  art for modern technology alongside the traditional Inuit and arctic images.  Pudlo, however, didn’t see 20th-century phenomena as clashing with Inuit life; they’d become part of it.)  Taking inspiration from her grandmother and mother, nonetheless, and following their lead in the sulijuk tradition, Annie depicted the life of her community in flux in bright, vivid colors in contrast to Pitseolak’s subdued palette.

Like her grandmother, Pitseolak, before her, however, Annie was an instinctive chronicler of her times.  She filled her domestic interiors with details such as clocks and calendars, graduation photos, and Inuktitut messages stuck to the fridge in modern Inuit kitchens.  Indeed, unlike much conventional Inuit art, in which figures are usually isolated in ambiguous, white backgrounds, Annie filled her pictures with fully-limned settings, usually interiors, like little stage sets.  Her graphics record the incursions of the mainstream culture into Inuit life, with images of technology like ATM machines, television, videogames, mobile phones, and snow mobiles.  The death of her mother, Napachie, in 2002 led Annie to explore themes of mortality and spirituality.

The theme of the inclusion of modern technology in everyday Inuit life appears with a touch of humor in Watching the Simpsons on TV (pencil, ink, and colored pencil on paper, 2003), a hyper-detailed scene of the interior of a contemporary Inuit home with the young mother and father either dressing to go out into the cold or doffing their outerwear after coming home, while their small child, bundled up in his or her parka, is standing facing away from us, staring at Marge and Homer Simpson on the television set right in front of his face.  In its simplicity and directness, Annie’s drawing could be a one-panel cartoon: it tells a whole story at a glance and makes a comment on a social phenomenon in a subtle and amusing way. 

2003–04’s Family Sleeping in a Tent (colored pencil and ink on paper) works the same way: we see two couples snuggled in sleeping bags on a pair of double mattresses in a huge tent.  Around them are all the conveniences of a modern campsite: camp stove, Coleman lantern, CB radio, a can of “camping fuel,” a radio, and a clock.  (With all that equipment, you know they got to the campsite in a truck or an SUV!)  As a bonus benefit, it’s interesting to contrast this drawing with Pitseolak’s Family Camping in Tuniq Ruins.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Annie drew Family Sleeping as a deliberate homage to her grandmother’s Family Camping.  The younger artist clearly felt a special connection to Pitseolak since included in this exhibit are two prints which are direct and specific references to the older artist: 2006’s Pitseolak’s Glasses (collagraph on paper), which simply presents the late artist’s familiar black-framed glasses (Jason Farago described them as “Nana Mouskouri-style eyeglasses” in the New York Times—for anyone who knows who that is!), and Portrait of Pitseolak (collagraph and ink on paper, 2003-04), portraying Annie’s grandmother standing alone before a blank, white background—a reference, I suspect, to the convention of her grandmother’s and mother’s practice—wearing not a traditional Inuit parka, but a dark gray, modern jacket, buttoned all the way up, over a red skirt with green flowers, with a gray polka-dot head scarf tied under her chin, carrying a brown wooden cane in her right hand and a yellow, polka-dot bag in her  left.  Pitseolak’s wearing the signature glasses in the portrait.  (A collagraph is a form of monoprint created from a collage of textures that have been glued onto a rigid surface.)  Edward Guarino, the Inuit art collector, calling the poignant and touching Glasses “a masterpiece,” characterized the picture as “a contemporary still life that is also a moving symbolic portrait of a beloved family member who has died.”  Of the affectionate Portrait, Guarino wrote that it’s “at once a remembrance of a beloved family member as well as the likeness of a celebrated artist and a portrait of old age.” 

Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait is a very small show, displayed along one wall of the corridor outside the Heye’s permanent exhibit gallery.  There are only 18 prints and drawings, six from each of the artists.  Each one, however, is  exquisite, providing a glimpse of the later work of the three women that, at least according to the IAIA’s Hanley, exemplified each one’s style and main themes.  The works of Pitseolak Ashoona and Napachie and Annie Pootoogook are also remarkable because each  print or drawing tells a little tale; you can’t describe most of them, as I imagine you’ve noticed, without recounting the story behind the image. (Napachie, of course, actually inscribed her works with the story she’s illustrating.)  However small the selection of works, though, the “discourse and dialog” among the three artists, as Hanley terms it, is nonetheless powerful.  Furthermore, spanning nearly 40 years, the pieces on display at the Heye Center also chronicle how the family’s life and the world of Kinngait have changed over time.  (The three artists’ lives actually covered well over a century of Inuit history.)

On the website Hyperallergic, Christopher Green wrote that the exhibit “moves past the belabored topics of market making and the in/authentic modernity of Cape Dorset printmaking to pursue matrilineal discourses internal to the community.  The effect,” he continued, “is an inward-looking familial history, rather than one . . . that focuses on the needs and desires of southerners.”  Pitseolak’s works, asserted Green, demonstrated “the long line of generational knowledge that reaches back to precolonial life,” while Napachie’s pictures represent a “foray into particularly contemporary issues that were not necessarily present in Ashoona’s work.”  The art critic declared, “It is the work of Annie Pootoogook that most strikingly demonstrates the ways traditional Inuit family life has been integrated into the modern North,” and insisted, “Her drawings alone are reason enough to see the exhibition.” 

Jennifer Levin wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexican, “The exhibition shows . . . a humorous eye for detail and an impulse to tell stories about family life.”  In Akunnittinni, which Levin covered at MoCNA, it’s Napachie’s work that “stands out as the most shocking in its reflection of Inuit life,” she observed, but Annie’s “vibrant work” displays her “edgy insistence on present-day life in the Canadian Arctic.”  The critic summed the show up by observing that it “shows that, like family and cultural traditions, some artistic concerns are passed down, mother to daughter to granddaughter, as each generation turns to drawing for its own reasons.”

In the Inuit Art Quarterly, Michelle McGeough (also writing about the Santa Fe exhibit) remarked:

The exhibition . . . gives each artist space in the intimate gallery to present their unique individual visual depiction of Inuit history, positioning a life lived on the land prior to settlement living alongside stories of the contemporary realities of Northern life.  This arrangement gives the viewer the opportunity to appreciate the individual artists’ articulation of northern life and oral traditions.

Of the works of Pitseolak on exhibit, McGeough noted that “the artist’s prints brilliantly demonstrate her mastery of line and composition and her ability to eloquently render the movement of a body through space.”  Her daughter, Napachie’s “narrative imagery depicts a much harsher reality for Inuit women.  She does not shy away from uncomfortable topics, and in doing so, challenges any idealized notions one might have of northern life.”  They are “dramatic depictions of oral traditions and a collective history marked by change.”  McGeough continued: “In contrast, Annie Pootoogook’s artistic sensibility is shaped by the sweeping thrust of modernity in Canada’s North.  Infused with popular culture references, her depictions of contemporary life focus on the personal and intimate.”  The IAQ critic added, “The viewer instinctively knows she shares a very personal relationship with the subjects whom she depicts.” 

In the New York Times, Jason Farago dubbed Akunnittinni “touching” and remarked that while the three artists “each established quite distinct artistic vocabularies,” nevertheless “beneath their divergent styles were common concerns about the wages of modernization, as well as the role of art among families and communities “  The Timesman observed that Pitseolak’s pictures “depict seals, dogs, ballplayers and a camping family as hard-edge figures afloat in fields of white,” while her daughter, Napachie’s, “engaged with social concerns in their community, including alcoholism and the abuse of women.”  Annie Pootoogook “took that present-tense orientation even further,” continued Farago, “completing raw but often humorous drawings of contemporary life in Cape Dorset.” 

[I recommend that anyone even remotely interested in the art and artifacts of the American Indian, much of which is breathtakingly beautiful and all of which is eye-opening, pay a visit to the Heye Center, a little-known  gem of New York City culture at the southern tip of ManhattanLike all Smithsonian facilities, it’s free and open every day (including Mondays, the traditional dark day for museums, and holidays except Christmas Day) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (until 8 p.m. on Thursdays).  The address of the Heye Center is 1 Bowling Green (on Whitehall Street, an extension of Broadway, at Stone Street) and its phone number is (212) 514-3700; the website is at http://nmai.si.edu/visit/newyork/.]

10 January 2018

“The Museum Should Be Open to All"

by Holland Cotter and Roberta Smith

[On Thursday, 4 January, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced a new admissions policy for out-of-state visitors to the city-subsidized museum.  The New York Times set up a conversation between art critics Holland Carter and Roberta Smith to discuss this change in the 47-year-old admissions policy.  Many of the points Cotter and Smith make here are, in a broader application, arguments for the support for and the increase of arts programs in schools.  Most ROTters know that arts education and funding for the arts, which are inseparably connected in my mind, are subjects of concern to me.  The transcript of Cotter and Smith’s discussion posted below was published in the  New York Times in the “Weekend Arts II” section on 5 January 2018.  ~Rick]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new admission policy beginning in March will end pay-as-you-wish for out-of-state visitors, for the first time since 1970 — and residents of New York State will need to show some form of identification. The two chief art critics of The New York Times weighed in on the significance of these changes.

HOLLAND COTTER Loopy as it may sound, on principle I believe major public museums should have universal free admission. You should be able to walk in off the street and see the art just as you can enter a public library and read the books on the shelf. If this country had a government that cared about its citizens rather than one that catered to its economic ruling class, we might be able to live some version of this ideal.

ROBERTA SMITH I don’t think it’s loopy at all. If libraries started charging entrance fees there would be a great uproar. We don’t have to pay for access to publicly owned books, and we shouldn’t have to pay to see art in museums whose nonprofit status is supported by our taxes. Reading skills are seen as essential to the common good. Visual literacy is every bit as important, and if our culture and school systems placed more emphasis on learning about art, people would grow up with more of a museum habit.

COTTER That economic ruling class, for its part, could, and should, contribute to an open-door cultural policy. I think of a very small example of the possibilities: Thanks to earmarked donations by a single patron (the Rubins, of the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea) the Bronx Museum of the Arts was able to begin a free admission program for several years that the museum continues today.

Which leads me to wonder about the civic good will behind — and institutional wisdom in accepting — another example of donor earmarking: the $65 million patron-inscribed fountains recently installed (and critically panned) at the Met. If the museum’s figures are accurate, and the new mandatory policy for out of state visitors will bring in $6 million to $11 million a year in admissions revenue; the money spent on the fountains would have covered that income for a decade.

SMITH Someone should be able to figure this out without putting it on the public’s shoulders. The projected annual increase in admissions revenue — from $42 million to $50 million — seems minuscule, and they say it’s only going to affect 31 percent of its overall visitors anyway. So why not find the money somewhere else and affect zero percent?

The Met says that adults are paying less, owing partly to the lawsuit requiring the museum to refine its language at admission desks and on its website — from “recommended admission” to “suggested admission.” So hire a really good design firm to formulate some kind of counter campaign, signage with tons of jokes cajoling people who have the means to pay the suggested fee. Like “If you’re wearing mink, or a bespoke suit, or if your entire outfit totals out at more than $3,500, think about dropping $25 to visit the greatest museum in the world. You’ll be helping others who can’t afford your wardrobe.”

The Met’s David H. Koch Plaza is in its way a similar lack of imagination. The 1968 Roche Dinkeloo plaza design was gracious and spacious. Those new awful Darth Vaderish fountains take huge hunks out of the plaza and disrupt movement. Both Koch Plaza and the Met’s fixed admissions reflect something widespread: the continual degrading and privatization of public space.

COTTER Given the fiscal realities the Met is dealing with at this point, whoever is to blame — the Met points to the precipitous 73 percent drop in visitors paying the full “suggested” amount — the new, graduated admission policy doesn’t strike me, purely in dollars-and-cents terms, as completely outrageous, particularly as a full price ticket is good for three days of admission to the three Met branches.

My big problem lies elsewhere. I’m instinctively suspicious of, and resistant to, “carding” procedures, meaning any admission policy based on presenting personal identification, which is what the Met is asking for from New York State residents who want to keep paying what they wish.

This potentially discriminates against a population of residents who either don’t have legal identification or are reluctant to show the identification they have. And it plays directly into the hands of the anti-immigrant sentiment that is now poisoning this country. I cannot remember a time when a museum’s unqualified demonstration of “doors open to all” would carry more positive — I would say necessary — political weight. This is my single biggest reservation about the Met’s admission-by-I.D. policy.

And even for legally documented citizens I see potential problems. The Met says it will not turn people away even if they don’t present an I.D., though it will remind them to bring an I.D. on a return visit. I don’t know what kind of guidelines will be in place for delivering such “warnings,” but I can easily imagine a young person who may have no I.D. feeling discouraged from returning to the museum.

SMITH And young people are very important. For example, the Met will allow students from New Jersey and Connecticut to pay as they wish. Why shouldn’t that apply to students everywhere? People want to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States; a more visually literate society produces more people able to design things for factories to make. Museums directly inspire and cultivate talent and creativity. To exclude people from them is a loss that can be measured in economics, and happiness. The “pursuit of happiness” wasn’t mentioned in the Declaration of Independence because it sounds good. It is an important aspect of a nation’s health, on all fronts.

So I worry that the Met’s plan is classist, and nativist. It divides people into categories — rich and poor, native and foreign — which is exactly what this country does not need right now. I think this is tied to the abstract way wealth is accrued these days. In the last Gilded Age the rich had a much more literal sense of the suffering their fortunes were built on and a greater need to give back.

COTTER In the pre-integration 1950s and early 1960s, the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama admitted black visitors only on Tuesdays. Technically, “everybody” could enter the museum, but only if they adhered to the admission policy. And that policy effectively discouraged an entire population from ever considering the museum anything but alien territory. I am very wary of potential psychological deterrents of this kind, not only as they impact the visitor population, but also as they affect the continuing viability of the Met itself, and other institutions that present themselves as being culturally comprehensive. They need, on every level, from the reception of visitors at the door to the experience of history delivered in the galleries, to make us know this is “our history, our place.”

SMITH The Met says it is the only major museum in the world with a “pure” pay-as-you-wish policy. Their attitude is that all other museums charge one way or another, including for special exhibitions, as if to say: This is inevitable, and now we will too. Actually it should be just the opposite. Pay as you wish is a principle that should be upheld and defended, a point of great pride. The city should be equally proud of it. No one else has this, although they should. It indicates a kind of attitude, like having the Statue of Liberty in our harbor. It is, symbolically speaking, a beacon.

[Smith says above, “. . . if our culture and school systems placed more emphasis on learning about art, people would grow up with more of a museum habit.” Several times, I’ve said that very same thing about theater and the arts in general.  In “Degrading the Arts” (posted on 13 August 2009), I went a little further, asserting that there’s a

consequence to good arts education . . ., one that is particularly important to contemplate when the arts are under attack from many quarters in our society.  In a 3 February companion article to . . . two 1993 [New York Times] reports, “Arts Groups Step In to Fill the Gaps,” Glenn Collins pointed out that “early consistent exposure to the arts builds future audiences.”  It also builds a citizenry that values our artistic and cultural heritage instead of being hostile to it.  A citizen who has taken an art, theater, dance, or music course and who is thereafter encouraged to experience and enjoy this part of life is less likely to enlist in the forces that oppose free artistic expression.

It’s a way to defeat the anti-arts policies supported by those who vote to close museums and pull funding for the arts.]

05 January 2018

Art By Indigenous Peoples


[Pursuant to my recent article about my parents’ art collecting (“A Passion for Art,” posted on 21 November), I wrote a little about my father’s connection to the then-private Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.  I’ve also recently been planning a visit downtown to the New York City branch of the National Museum of the American Indian (a report on which should appear within a couple of weeks, though I’ve written on NMAI before on Rick On Theater).  These two preoccupations have prompted me to revive two archival reports, both brief, on exhibits at each of those museums that predate the start of ROT; to round out this post, I’ve added a report I never published on an exhibit of another aboriginal art collection, this time Australian, all under the title “Art by Indigenous Peoples.” ]

THE FIRST AMERICAN ART
(NMAI-New York, 2004)

On Friday, 30 April 2004, my mother and I went down to Bowling Green to the National Museum of the American Indian.  (You may know that a new NMAI is opening later this year on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  The Smithsonian took over this private museum, then simply the Museum of the American Indian and located at 155th and Broadway, in 1989.  It moved into the former U.S. Custom House downtown in ’94.  I don’t remember when the Smithsonian started construction on the D.C. building, and I don’t know if the current collection at what’s called the George Gustav Heye Collection—named for the man who started the private museum with his own collection of American Indian art—will be moved to D.C. [it wasn’t], but the Custom House will remain a satellite facility of NMAI.) 

I caught the review of a show at NMAI just before I left D.C.—The First American Art: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art from 24 April 2004-29 May  2006 at the Heye Center—and suggested to Mom that we check it out when she was here.  Like the Maya exhibit at the National Gallery [4 April to 25 July 2004 in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; report posted on “Theater & Art,” 14 August 2014], the focus of this show is the artistic appeal of the items, not their ethnographic value. 

Of course, there are pots and bowls (including one gorgeous example of Maria Martinez’s black-on-black Pueblo pottery!), baskets, beadwork, carvings, katchina dolls, and such things that you would consider art, even though they were made for use rather than for aesthetic display, but there are also pieces of clothing, saddles and saddle bags, pouches, and other items that would ordinarily be in an anthropological exhibit.  But it was their aesthetics that was under consideration—both in the show at NMAI and in the private collection at the couple’s New York home. 

I was also surprised to see several drawings on paper—pages from books made and illustrated by Indians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, clearly under the influence—and even at the behest—of Euro-Americans.  These illustrations were of Indian subjects, of course, and from an Indian perspective.  As such, they included not only depictions of Indian ceremonies, but also of Indian victories over white invaders.  They may have taken the lead of the dominant European culture, but they didn’t cop out!  I never knew the Indians did this kind of thing—at least not until modern times when Indian artists adopted and adapted Western techniques for their own themes.

The First American Art is a medium-sized show—200 objects, but all in one room.  (There are other exhibits, part of the permanent collection, all around, of course, so there’s a lot to see if you want to hang about.  That depends, of course, on how interested you are in Indian art and artifacts.)  Much of the stuff dates from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, but there are some really old things here and there.  A couple of pots from the Pueblo Ancestors (who used to be called Anasazi until the Pueblos objected—it’s apparently really a put-down from another native culture) which were not only beautiful, but in incredibly good condition for crockery that’s over 1000 years old!  (There were also a couple of carved implements from before that—back into BCE and double-digit CE. 

American Indian stuff wasn’t made to last—it was intended to be used until it was used up.  They weren’t made of stuff that stood up against time—no metal or stone; it’s mostly pottery, wood, skins, straw.  Stuff that old is really, really rare!)  I was delighted to find a number of pieces from the Pacific Northwest—work I like very much—and there were even some Inuit/Eskimo items (even though they’re not actually Indians). 

One thing I found annoying, because the exhibit focused on the aesthetics and not the cultural implications, was that, though the items were identified by tribe/culture, there was no indication where these people lived or anything to identify them except their names.  I know some of the peoples exhibited, but many were strange names to me, and it would have been interesting to me to know what part of the country they came from.  Items were grouped strangely—not by region or tribe, not by similarity of the objects or of technique or medium/material—so I couldn’t guess who might have been close to whom when techniques looked alike.  I guess the curators didn’t think that was significant, but I was curious.  Even a map with the tribal areas marked would have been sufficient, or a note on the labels telling the area inhabited by the culture. 

Nonetheless, the objects themselves were really beautiful—many of them truly exquisite.  This show is well worth a visit (I saw a number of things I’d come back for after the place closes for the night—one of Mom’s and my fantasy “midnight shopping trips”!) and the building itself is wonderful—a terrific (re)use of an old Beaux Arts building whose original purpose has expired.  (The customs function moved out in 1973 and the 1907 building was slated for demolition.)  The Smithsonian did an excellent job turning the Custom House into a beautiful exhibit space while preserving the original interior, sort of like a ghost of the building’s past life hovering over its present.  (The southern tip of Manhattan has lots of things to explore.  It’s easily a day’s outing, and on a nice day it’s a good place to spend time wandering around the streets and parks seeking out little-known monuments and historic sites.  NMAI couldn’t be easier to get to—the exit of the Bowling Green subway station on the IRT Lexington Avenue Line is right in front of the building’s entrance.) 

*  *  *  *
AFRICAN VISION
(NMAfA, 2007)

On the afternoon of Thursday, 15 February 2007, my mother and I drove down to the National  Mall in Washington and checked out a small exhibit of the Walt Disney-Tishman Collection which had opened at the National Museum of African Art that day.  The exhibit, African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection, consists of 88 items from the 525-piece collection which Disney donated to the Smithsonian in 2005. 

After my father returned in 1967 from serving at the embassy in Bonn, he was introduced to Warren Robbins (1923-2008), a man who had had the same job there, cultural attaché, prior to my dad.  (Robbins had the job from 1958 to 1960; Dad had held the post from 1965 to 1967.)  When he retired from the Foreign Service, Robbins settled in Washington, and one day he read that the townhouse that had been the Capitol Hill home of Frederick Douglass, Lincoln’s Recorder of Deeds for Washington, was up for sale.  He decided it would be a shame if the house were sold and torn down or converted into a condominium, losing the original historic residence forever. 

Robbins had some family money so he bought the Douglass house without knowing what he was going to do with it at first.  He ultimately determined that it should house African art, which he himself had collected for some time, and he set about establishing the Museum of African Art in 1964, the first museum in the United States devoted exclusively to the art and culture of Africa.  Eventually, with the help of a Rockefeller Foundation grant, the MAA expanded to the nearby houses—nine ultimately—and included a display of modern Western art alongside the African pieces that had inspired them—works by artists like Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso.  (There was also a room that had been Douglass’s office in the house that was furnished as it might have been in his day.) 

My father worked for Robbins in these years on a volunteer basis as director of development, and we became very interested in African art as a consequence.  (After the expansion and redesign financed by the Rockefeller grant, the museum had a reopening gala in the spring of 1971, the time I was stationed at Fort Holabird in nearby Baltimore.  Hubert Humphrey (1911-78), the former vice president, was an honorary chairman of the museum board; Senator Humphrey—he returned to the Senate in 1970—couldn’t attend, so, attired in my army dress blues, I escorted Muriel (1912-98), his wife, to the reopening.  Now that was a formidable—and delightful—lady, in the full meaning of that word!) 

In August 1979, the Smithsonian Institution acquired the MAA and established a home for it on the Mall in an underground facility (next to the similarly-constructed Sackler Gallery of Asian Art) beside the old Smithsonian Castle.  The current museum was begun in 1983 and completed in 1987.  [I have posted an article on ROT, “The National Museum of African Art,” recounting this history in more detail on 19 January 2015.]

I hadn’t visited the NMAfA for long time, and this new exhibit sounded exciting—the Disney-Tishman collection became famous for two reasons.  The first is that, lacking a home of its own, it has often been out of sight for long periods, making it a sort of legend among African-art enthusiasts.  The second, and more significant, is that it contains some unique examples of art from the African cultures of, mostly, West Africa from Liberia to Nigeria.  The collection had been assembled over decades by New York real-estate developer Paul Tishman (If I were a Tishman . . . .) who sold it in 1984 to the Walt Disney Company.  Disney had planned to exhibit it in a specially-built facility at EPCOT Center in Florida, but that pavilion was never built and the collection remained in limbo, going out on loan (to Paris, Jerusalem, L.A., and New York’s Met) from a climate-controlled storage warehouse in California where it was available to scholars and researchers (such as the animators for Disney’s 1994 Lion King), but not publicly open to viewers on a regular basis. 

In 2005, Disney donated the collection to the Smithsonian and the NMAfA has been curating it since then.  The small sample of the collection in African Vision covers 75 cultures from 20 countries; most of the objects are from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but a few are from the 16th through the 18th centuries.  (Objects of African art, like those of Native Americans, seldom last very long for two reasons: they are made for use, not aesthetic or decorative display, and they are made mostly of perishable materials.  Very old objects are rare.) 

Some of the objects in African Vision were familiar from the years my folks were involved in the original African art museum, like the Bakota reliquary figure, a stunning stylized face of brass and wood from Gabon, and others were new to me, such as one virtually naturalistic figure from Madagascar of a warrior carved from wood and painted.  Needless to say, there are lots of masks and carved figurines, mostly of women, though they differ greatly in iconography, size, and style from culture to culture.  There are several carved doors, a symbol of status in an African village, and one carved stool, usually the perch of the headman. 

There are several pieces that clearly show the influence of European exploration, including the oldest item in the exhibit, a hunting horn from Sierra Leone carved from a single elephant’s tusk which is dated to about 1500.  Not only are there carvings of letters from the Latin alphabet, but the horn displays the coats-of-arms of both Spain and Portugal.  (It was apparently commissioned by the crown prince of Portugal as a gift for the king of Spain.)  

The most curious piece of this kind is a small 17th-century copper-alloy sculpture from the Congo of a man in a crucifixion-like posture.  The museum label explains that the cross (which is missing from this item) is a portentous design in Bakongo iconography.  The crucifixes worn by the European missionaries caught the attention of the Africans, and they appropriated the form, without necessarily the religious implication, for their own uses.  (This figure was almost certainly mounted on a wooden cross, which has been lost or decayed.)  

Among the most beautiful and intricate works, however, are the few beaded pieces, including a Yoruba crown (Nigeria) and an elaborate scabbard for a ceremonial staff, covered in the glass beads that are the frequent medium for African beadwork.  Unlike American Indian beadwork I’ve seen, the African beadwork here is not flat; it’s full of relief, some of it quite high, with full human figures and faces of both people and animals raised from the surface. 

Western artists of the early years of the 20th century discovered the imagery of Africa, but it astonishes me that the general public, even the art-consuming public, relegated African art to the realms of anthropology and ethnology rather than art until relatively late in the 20th century.  Remember that Warren Robbins’s museum, started in the last third of the century, was the first of its kind; even American Indian art had by then been long accepted as an extraordinary aesthetic accomplishment.  I remember being immediately taken with the sophistication, not to mention the pure beauty, of the pieces I saw when my parents first took me over to the MAA on Capitol Hill.  The Bakota reliquaries I saw then and the Bambara antelopes from Mali remain among the most stunning pieces of art I have ever seen still today.  How could anyone overlook that?  (Yes, I know: it’s ethnocentrism and racism—I still don’t get it.)

*  *  *  *
AUSTRALIAN INDIGENOUS ART TRIENNIAL: CULTURE WARRIORS
(Katzen Arts Center, 2009)

On Saturday, 26 September 2009, Mom and I drove over to the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center on Ward Circle to have a look at an exhibit that was of interest to my mother (John Dreyfuss: Inventions, an exhibit of sculpture by a Washington artist with whose parents and grandparents Mother had been acquainted), but which underwhelmed me, to put it succinctly.  The Katzen Center, however, had several other collections on exhibit and we wandered through the museum to see what we could see. 

Of most interest was a display called Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors (10 September-8 December 2009), on tour from the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.  (This is an abbreviated exhibit—90 works by 31 artists; the full show, which often contained included nearly twice as many artworks, toured Australia starting in 2007.)  It’s an assembly of pieces by Aboriginal artists from every state and territory of Australia.  It’s not entirely accurate to call it “indigenous” art because, like the Inuit whom I discussed recently on my blog (see “Pudlo Pudlat, Inuit Artist,” 28 September 2009), some native Australians didn’t have much in the way of decorative art before colonialism.  The works shown here, though entirely sui generis, are frequently derived from styles and techniques learned from Europeans (including video art).  The materials used are indigenous (several pieces were works on bark), though, and application of the techniques is unique. 

What is most fascinating about the collection is that all the works express some sort of political point, often about the displacement of the tribe from which the artist comes or the destruction of the habitat and environment in which the people were living.  The exhibition’s “very existence acknowledges a country’s history of state-mandated racism,” observed Jessica Dawson in her Washington Post review.  That’s why the exhibit was subtitled Culture Warriors.

31 December 2017

Shakespeare REMIX


[My friend Erin Woodward, who teaches theater in the New York City public schools, has been engaged in an after-school program called Shakespeare REMIX for several years.  I’ve seen a couple of the program’s performances from her school and I find it a fascinating and innovative effort in arts education—or rather, the use of the arts, in this case theater, as a teaching paradigm—not to teach theater precisely, but to teach . . . well, intellectual curiosity and inquiry.  I hope you’ll see what I mean by that somewhat cryptic characterization.  In any case, when I saw the first REMIX performance last year, I knew I had to blog on the program.  Now, here’s my effort to that end.]

In 2001, a group of theater professionals, some teaching artists, others working theater pros (including actors, directors, managers, and playwrights), launched the Epic Theatre Center.  (In 2007, the company changed its name to Epic Theatre Ensemble to “reflect Epic’s identity as a collective of actors, writers, directors, educators and activists who share a passion for utilizing the theatre to empower voices, foster dialogue, inspire self-exploration and spur social change.”  Neither name seems to be related to the Brechtian concept of Epic Theater, however.)  Among this founding collective were some of the company’s current leaders: Executive Director Ron Russell, a director, and Artistic Director Melissa Friedman and Associate Artistic Director James Wallert, both actors.  Their thrust from the start was to forge links between schools and students on the one side and performing artists and the professional stage on the other.  The company focused its efforts on integrating youth development, the training of citizen-artists, and the production of politically-oriented plays (both new and from the classic repertoire).  In 2005, Epic Theatre was instrumental in founding the Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts (BHSWCA), a New York City public school on the Evander Childs Educational Campus on East Gun Hill Road in Williamsbridge with a unique writing curriculum into which the arts are integrated.  

That same year, Epic commissioned No Child . . . from Nilaja Sun, an actor and teacher in the New York City system since 1998.  No Chid . . . is based on Sun’s experiences teaching theater over eight years in New York City public schools, composited into the fictional Malcolm X High School in the play.  A one-actor play with a title derived from the controversial George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, No Child . . ., described by in the New York Times as “a lightning-paced, multi-character solo play in the style of John Leguizamo,” was presented in 2006 at the Barrow Street Theatre in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village with Nijala as a version of herself (named Miss Sun).  The play received good reviews and won the 2007 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Solo Performance, the Outer Critics’ John Gassner Playwriting Award, the Theatre World Award, the Obie Award for Performance, and a nomination for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance.  In essence, No Child . . ., though based on Sun’s experiences teaching and directing theater in the schools predating Epic’s founding, is a portrait of the troupe’s philosophy and practices, especially the program it calls Shakespeare REMIX.

In its first half dozen years, Epic Theatre launched such programs as the yearly young people’s Summer Intensive which evolved into the Epic NEXT Arts Leadership Program, the Shakespeare REMIX after-school program, and the five-week Youth Theatre Festival (Epic YTF) which presents performances from Epic NEXT, Heather Raffo’s Places of Pilgrimage residencies, and Shakespeare REMIX.  In 2011, Russell became Executive Director of Epic, Friedman was named Artistic Director, and Wallert assumed his role as Associate Artistic Director.  The company’s mission, in their own words, “is to create bold work with and for diverse communities that promotes vital discourse and social change.”  This they accomplish by encouraging students to be “creative and engaged citizens,” putting forward powerful ideas that challenge people’s thinking, and fostering collaborations among artists, students, and opinion-makers to produce plays about important issues of our time, such as their 2010 New York première of Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play.  “Because theatre has a JOB in this world,” insists Russell of the troupe’s purpose.  “It is not an entertainment.  It is an incredibly powerful tool for social change.  For awakening, particularly in young people, a thirst for rigor, and self-expression, and courage, the courage of speaking with truth and clarity in front of an audience . . . .” 

One student in an Epic program declared, “Epic pushes us to be citizen artists rather than just artists—artists that have something to say about their country, their community.”  Another, now a college student, said that “the most important thing I took away from the program was political awareness,” and added,

I’m 99 percent sure that if Epic had not come to my school I would not have been anywhere near as involved in any of the social or political issues that I am now.  I definitely would not be at a liberal arts college.  I wouldn’t be here.

Other student performers spoke of increased self-confidence born of the work with Epic, the ability to be self-assertive, particularly when confronted with teasing or bullying over perceived differences. 

In 2003, Epic launched its after-school youth-development program Shakespeare REMIX at Chelsea Career & Technical Education High School in lower Manhattan (just west of SoHo).  Epic co-founder Melissa Friedman, a teaching artist with Theatre for a New Audience and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, had been working at Chelsea with Robert Mitchell, veteran English Language Arts (ELA) teacher and Coordinator of Student Activities at the school.  Mitchell, now the vice principal of Chelsea CTE, expressed interest in doing an after-school Shakespeare program. (Chelsea CTE is where Erin Woodward teaches theater.  She’s contributed to Rick On Theater—Erin’s the author of “The Cheapening of the Standing O,” posted on 8 February 2015—and her father, Kirk, is a frequent guest-blogger on ROT, including “Thoughts On Rehearsals,” his last contribution on 26 December.) 

REMIX grew to include three New York City public high schools in Lower Manhattan (Chelsea CTE), Harlem (Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts), and the Bronx (BHSWCA). (The program briefly expanded to four city schools with the addition of the Frances Perkins Academy at Automotive High School in Brooklyn, but currently operates in only the original three.)  The program takes its name from the recording industry where a “remix” is a piece of music which has been changed from its original form by adding, removing, or altering elements—or any combination of these processes—to create something new.  Any work of art—a song, a painting, a book, a video, or a photograph, say—can be remixed.  

In Epic’s Shakespeare REMIX, teams of actor-mentors work with the students (about 200 in all Epic partner schools) for four afternoons a week over a three-month period.  They discuss the chosen play’s social and political issues fully, analyze Shakespeare’s text, and then intertwine their own writing into Shakespeare’s original dialogue.  In the words of an Epic promotion statement, “Students remix the meaning of an original Shakespeare piece with the help of a professional artistic mentor to push their thoughts far beyond measures they have imagined.  A bridge is created in between the time of the plays and their time once they’re able to recreate an original piece and make it their own. At the festival each borough presents their remixed piece which provides the youth with a captivating experience that can encourage them to get deeper in touch with their theatrical side.”

The final remixed scripts, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., an Epic actor who’s appeared in several REMIX productions, estimates, usually contain about 10 to 20% student writing, leaving the rest as Shakespeare composed it.  “The students are using rigorous research and text analysis, combined with their native earnestness, empathy, thoughtfulness, and insightfulness . . .,” Epic Executive Director Russell declares, “to sculpt a truly original vision of theatre that will be impactful on their community.”  The program culminates in fully produced plays with students performing alongside professional theater artists.

“The rhythm of Shakespeare’s text is the hook,” says Friedman, Epic’s Director of Education, “and the students connect it with some of the kinds of poetry that they like, like rap and spoken word.  It’s the way into his plays, and they really respond to it.”  As if to illustrate Friedman’s assertion, a 16-year-old REMIX student actor, who’d never encountered Shakespeare’s plays before he worked on Much Ado About Nothing in 2012, confessed, “It just blew my mind.  You go through and find the metaphors and entendres.  Reading it was pretty cool, but when we started to stage it, you saw how much he wrote for actors.  There was just so much freedom.”

Student actor Kayla Bennett of the Bronx agrees: “I like it because it’s not easy.  It’s not regular words.  You have to look inside the text and really understand it and break it down.  Once you know what he’s saying, you know what to do onstage.  Because it’s a challenge to do so, that’s why I like it so much.”  Actor Simmons explains, echoing Friedman’s words:

Epic feels that working with young people on Shakespeare, parsing out the language, understanding the language and using that language within the context of their own lives is very important to understanding themselves—understanding the world while at the same time broadening their experience, broadening their vocabulary, being able to take the words that somebody else has written in heightened language and be able to speak that in front of people, we feel is crucial to their development as young people.

Then he adds: “Once they begin to understand what's happening in the play and what the story is, they begin to understand what's actually being said on the page.  They begin to broaden their vocabulary and they begin to be able to talk about how what's going on in Verona in the 15th century affects them right now.”  Simmons continues: “Teaching artists who are in the play come in and work with the students, help them learn the language, teach them the backstory and then they come in and see the play.  They have a different experience.  They have the backstory. Experiential learning is the way to go with Shakespeare.”  This is the educational rationale of Shakespeare REMIX; it validates both the students’ experiences and perceptions and the universality and impact of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old observations and depictions.

Working with theater designers, the student actor-playwrights also learn about lighting, costuming, and sound as they rehearse their remixed plays for performance before audiences of peers, parents, and the public at an Off-Broadway theater.  Finally, working with Epic artists (and sometimes school faculty as well) as mentors and castmates and directed by a member of the Epic company, the students present this entirely new piece of theater, speaking Shakespeare’s words and their own to connect these classic plays to their time and their world through the interconnected texts of five centuries ago and today.  Friedman insists that the socio-political points in the remixed text come totally from the students themselves, not some ambitious director.  For example, for Harlem’s Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts’ Taming of the Shrew, directed by Friedman in 2016, the students wrote new scenes focusing on the play’s subjugation of women and turned the play into a call for justice.  The new play was presented as a live taping for TV of the diegetic Crystal Sly Show for the ruling tyrant of a patriarchal society in which women have no right to vote and are required to submit to arranged marriages.  As for what the young playmakers want adults in their audiences to take away from their efforts, an actor playing Petruchio demanded, “I want to not only show the problem but put them metaphorically in the driver’s seat and say, ‘You can fix this.’  I want the audience personally to feel like, ‘Yes, there’s a problem.  How do we fix it?’”

In the remix of Richard III by Chelsea Career & Technical Education High School in 2008, the student co-authors added this warning:

Look out for “Richards.”  Don’t look for the curved back or misformed shape, ’cause you gotta look inside a man to witness his face.

After the political campaign year of 2016, that sounds mighty perceptive and astute—except that this Richard III  was created seven full years before a certain presumptive presidential nominee rose to political prominence and the Oval Office.  So, prophetic as well, then.  (In the 2016 remix of Macbeth in last year’s YTF, one of the potential successors to Macbeth’s throne is a buffoonish, Trump-like corporate mogul named Paul.  Who says kids today are oblivious to current events and politics?)

In 2009, Shakespeare REMIX won the Coming Up Taller Award (now known as the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award), a recognition of exemplary community arts and humanities programs made jointly by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. (At the 4 November White House award ceremony, First Lady Michelle Obama, Honorary Chairman of the President’s Committee, proclaimed of the recipients, ”You ask our young people to dream and you give them the tools to fulfill those dreams.  You affirm that their contributions are valuable and that their success matters to all of us.”) 

In a review of the 2010 REMIX production of Othello by students of BHSWCA, Nicholas Job wrote on New York Theatre Review:

Ron Russell [Epic’s Executive Director and the director of Othello] . . . has done a wonderful thing with these students and this piece.  By challenging his student actors to create an entirely new piece from the fabric of Othello, he’s empowered them with a unique understanding of Shakespeare’s words and meaning.  In addition, by giving them an opportunity to make their acting debuts with Shakespearian verse, in what many would consider a challenging play even to professionals, he’s instilled in them the confidence to handle classical text at an early age.  It’s exciting, inspiring, and at times, incredibly entertaining.  But don’t think just because his cast has only two professional actors Mr. Russell is interested in playing it safe.  He makes the bold choice to employ cross-gender casting for the cunning soldier at the center of the play . . . .

(BHSWCA’s Othello, which Job described as “a bit more of a mash-up and less a Remix,” was moved to the present day, with Desdemona the head of an entertainment law firm who’s “eventually s[u]nk by an untimely death, an affair, and rampant mistrust amongst her employees.”)

On Monday evening, 21 March 2016, I went up to Harlem’s National Black Theatre at 5th Avenue and 125th Street/Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to see Shakespeare REMIX: Henry 4, presented by Epic Theatre Ensemble’s Youth Theatre Festival.  It was my first exposure to the work of this program, but as I’m a firm supporter of theater and arts programs in schools, and because the cast of Henry 4 were Erin’s students at Chelsea, I knew I had to be there to see what it was all about as well as to show my support for Erin and her ensemble.  (In 2017, I went up to Harlem again to see CTE’s Much Ado  About Nothing remix on Saturday evening, 18 March.)  Epic YTF ran at NBT from 4 March to 5 April, with Henry 4 in performance on 19, 21 (two shows), and 22 March.  (The other plays, presented by different schools, in 2016’s YTF were Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew; 10467, a play, named for a Bronx ZIP code, about the inequities of New York City schools funding created by participants in Epic NEXT; Noura, a work in progress by Heather Raffo, with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; and Shakespeare’s Macbeth.)  I was so taken with the concept, not to mention the work demonstrated by the student performers and writers, that I immediately began thinking about learning more about Shakespeare REMIX and almost certainly writing a blog post on the program and its process.

Chelsea CTE’s Henry 4 was moved all the way to 2042, an election year in which President Henry Bollingbroke is running for his second term.  The country is under siege by foreign powers, civil rights militants, the news media, and the National Rifle Association.  (Erin played one of the TV news crew and an NRA minion, as well as serving as a co-producer.)  The NRA is backing the president’s opponent, Hotspur Percy, while Bollingbroke is trying to groom his son, Harrison, to succeed him (though it’s daughter Henrietta who’s the more activist).  As the program put it, “Part family drama, part barroom comedy”—and I’d add political intrigue—“Henry 4 gives us a glimpse of America on the brink.”  In its cynical view of contemporary American politics during the 2016 extreme campaign season, the team of four student writers and co-directors Asher Gill, a student with Epic NEXT and an actress and model who’s a member of the 10467 ensemble, and James Wallert, an Epic founder and Associate Artistic Director of the company, have given us plenty of skullduggery, corruption, betrayal, a helluva lot of gunplay, and, to paraphrase the line in Irma La Douce, everything, in fact, that makes politics worth doing.  But, my God!  If our politics gets half as nasty in the next 25 years as the cynical creators of Henry 4 predict—I doubt we’ll make it that far!  (This isn’t a complaint, just a horrified observation.  I mean, satire is one thing . . . but, wow!  Thank goodness, I probably won’t be around to see it.)

As you’ve seen from the few examples I’ve cited already, remixes recontextualize Shakespeare’s plots, often moving the time up a few centuries, though not all are reset in our era.  The students at UASPA, for example, transposed 2016’s Macbeth up to the 1890s in a South American dictatorship ruled by a military junta.  A 2011 remix of Romeo and Juliet was reset to 1938 in southern Germany following Kristallnacht.  The daughter of a wealthy Jewish family has fallen in love with the son of a neighboring family who’re flirting with National Socialism. (CTE’s Much Ado was reset in contemporary times, but took place in Messina High School, a New York City school where “gossip fills the hallways, classrooms, and bathrooms.”  Yes, that’s right—there were scenes set in the school johns, complete with stalls!)  Erin, who’s worked with Shakespeare REMIX since her second year at Chelsea CTE—she’s also involved at various levels with Epic’s in-class projects as well—identified three REMIX techniques that the students have used: building new writing and scenes within the established concept of the play (2004’s Romeo and Juliet, ’05’s Much Ado About Nothing, ’06’s Hamlet, ’08’s Richard III, ’08’s Winter’s Tale, ’12’s Henry VI), a modern retelling that runs parallel to the original text (’09’s Macbeth, ’11’s Measure for Measure), and, as applied to Henry 4, a combination of existing Shakespearean text and new student writing within a specific, original concept and setting (’07’s Othello, ’12’s Hamlet, ’13’s Twelfth Night, ’14’s Romeo and Juliet, ’16’s Henry IV.

Epic formally recruits participants for REMIX by visiting every ELA class at the partner schools before auditions and interviews.  Each school’s faculty also informally identifies students to work with REMIX, recruiting when they see students they think should be involved.  “I try to pull kids in if I know them,” explains Erin, “or I  observe behavior that suggests that REMIX would be a good fit.”  The application and selection of student participants occurs in the first semester of the year, so Erin and other faculty don’t have much chance to get to know new students vey well.

Many of the students are failing classes or exhibiting discipline problems.  According to Friedman, however, “As participants learn to master Shakespeare’s challenging text, their school attendance and grades improve, and their confidence rises.”  A report earlier this year on the Daily Beast, the on-line journal of reporting and opinion, says that through Shakespeare REMIX, Epic has “greatly impacted their students’ academic performance and empowered a new generation of artist-activists.”  Friedman adds, “On average, 95 percent of Shakespeare REMIX participants finish high school, and 90 percent of graduates go to college.”  In the 2015-16 school year, Epic reports, “92 percent of Remix seniors applied to at least eight colleges and received acceptances to at least four.”  (In the schools where Epic works, the average for college attendance is 50%.  Epic NEXT, the company’s three-year mentoring program, maintains a college-attendance rate of 100%, the theater reports.) 

All students are welcome, but they must fill out a simple application and then, depending on whether their interest is in onstage or backstage work, do an audition or interview.  Every student who expresses an interest in the program may participate; the average ensemble is about two dozen.  There’s no limit to the size of the ensemble “as long as everyone involved has a task and feels useful and excited,” explains Erin.  She declared, “We want more rather than less,” and repeaters are common.  Most REMIX participants do at least two projects during their time at the partner school.  During the workshop period, Shakespearean and student writing is read and performed until it becomes familiar, and students all have a chance to act bits of the play in front of the ensemble.  Specific casting doesn’t occur until the play has been remixed, however, typically well into the rehearsal process. 

The project’s director selects the play on which each REMIX session will work (though Erin says that she provides input—as I imagine the faculty at the other partner schools do as well—and now, as the program has become part of the school’s milieu, the students also make requests). The texts students start with are pre-cut by the director—though, of course, changes are made as the project develops.  Typically, the REMIX project is based on a single Shakespeare play; the histories have been the only exceptions at Chelsea (Henry 6 incorporated all parts of Henry VI and Richard III; Henry 4 used Henry IV, parts 1 and 2).  The director pre-cuts the texts with which students start; in the case of the histories, for example, the initial text the students see could be a small bit of one play and the majority of another. 

According to Erin, the choice of play affects the way a process unfolds.  “The only really consistent effect that I see in the process,” says Erin, “is that some plays inspire characters to be created, while others inspire characters already in existence to be further fleshed out.”  The development process, says Erin,  has evolved and changed over the years, but the overall arc of the process is pretty much the same from project to project.

While the prime goal of Epic’s REMIX program isn’t  to train theater artists, NYTR’s Nicholas Job remarked that “Shakespeare newcomer Brianna Del Rio does a nice job with her portrayal of the ruthless Iago.  I suspect we’ll be seeing more of her and her fellow Remixers in the future on the New York stage . . . .”  Working closely with teaching artists (defined by Marit Ulvund as “a professional artist working in and through the arts in an educational or community setting” in her essay “In the age of the teaching artist: What teaching artists are and do”) has had an aspirational impact on some students and, over the years now, REMIX has fielded National Champions and New York City runners-up in the English Speaking Union’s National Shakespeare Competition.  

[I was able to get some input for this article from Erin Woodward but her work schedule precluded much follow-up.  Associate Artistic Director James Wallert, a founder of the Epic Theatre Ensemble, was willing to submit to an interview, but ultimately his schedule also made him unavailable.  The result has been that I’ve composed this article based mostly on secondary-source research, from which I was unable to answer all my questions.  Nonetheless, I believe the REMIX program is well worth covering on Rick On Theater and so I have gone ahead with posting this profile even in its incomplete state. 

[Epic’s office and mailing address is 55 West 39th Street, Suite 302, New York, New York 10018; e-mail:  epic@epictheatreensemble.org  phone: 212-239-1770.]