Category

non-Western

Nicholas Galanin: Layers and Splits

Nicolas Galanin, "Ism #1," 2013. 19" x 32", digital photographic print. Image courtesy of the artist

Nicholas Galanin, “Ism #1,” 2013. 19″ x 32″, digital photographic print. Image courtesy of the artist

At the end of last month, I heard Dr. Christopher Green give a presentation that included some works of art by Nicholas Galanin, who is a Tlingtit-Unanagax contemporary artist. I was particularly struck by the digital photographic print Ism #1, which features the famous icon of Christ from the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai. However, in Galanin’s image, the face of Jesus has been covered with a Tlingit shaman’s mask (and not an actual shaman’s mask, which the Tlingit consider personal and not for public display, but a replica of a shaman’s mask).1 By creating a digital compilation of an original Byzantine painting with a photograph of a replica of a Tlingit mask (a replica made by Don Lelooska Smith of Cherokee heritage), Galanin’s work of art is full of layers that raise attention to authenticity, originality, appropriation and even theft.2 Galanin explained Ism #1 further in a quote on the Eazel website:

“The shaman’s mask over the crucified Christ can be read as theft of Indigenous culture and experience by a non-Indigenous community. This is also a strategy to use iconography understandable to a Eurocentric culture to make clear the level of suffering endured by carriers of Indigenous culture, and to elevate the importance and significance of the shaman’s mask to this audience.”

The two represented objects refer to complicated histories of destruction and disturbance. The Mount Sinai icon is a rare example of Byzantine art from the 6th century, because it pre-dates the period of iconoclasm (icon destruction) that took place in the 8th and 9th centuries. Because this icon was located at a remote location on a peninsula near the Red Sea, it escaped iconoclastic destruction. And yet, the original Tlingit shaman’s mask, which Galanin references through a secular copy, was also in a forested location with restricted access. It was located at a Tlingit shaman’s grave (at the area called Point Lena, Alaska), but it did not escape disturbance: it was “collected” (i.e. stolen) by George Emmons in 1919. The mask was located in the National Museum of the American Indian in the last half of the 20th century, only to be repatriated in 2003.1

Christ, Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, 6th century. 33.1 x 19.4 in (84 x 45.5 cm, encaustic painting (pigments and wax). Image courtesy Wikipedia

Christ, Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, 6th century. 33.1 x 19.4 in (84 x 45.5 cm, encaustic painting (pigments and wax). Image courtesy Wikipedia

The meaning of the icon clearly has been altered by the addition of the Tlingit mask. In the original icon, Jesus’s face is asymmetrical: his right side (viewer’s left) is welcoming and calm, whereas his left side (viewer’s right) has harsher shadows and is pulled into a sneer. (If you want to see how differently the sides appear, check out these digital mockups of how the full faces would appear if the sides were symmetrical.) Through this split composition, the icon expresses the dual nature of Jesus Christ’s roles, as both a loving Savior for the righteous and a harsh Judge for the wicked.

I think that the composition of Christ’s face is also applicable to the context of the Christian missionaries interacting with Indigenous people during the period of Western expansion. Galanin explains, “During colonization and settlement, Christian missionaries functioned as a wedge used to split apart Indigenous communities.” As such, for those viewers who are familiar with this (hidden) split face, it can can serve as a reminder of Christianity’s divisive role in history. The visual layering even recalls this sense of the past, with the split face serving as the “older” first layer. I think that a hope of rectification and restitution is suggested by superimposing a symmetrical, visually-balanced mask on top of this asymmetrical face, especially with the knowledge that the original mask was repatriated to the Tlingit in 2003. And yet, by having these two cultures bound together within Galanin’s digital photomontage, the layered pull between the past and present conveys that an imbalance still exists today.

Nicolas Galanin, Things Are Looking Native, Native's Looking Whiter, 2012. Giclée print, 15.5" x 20.25"

Nicholas Galanin, “Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter,” 2012. Giclée print, 15.5″ x 20.25″. Image courtesy of the artist

This pull between past, present, and future is also seen in Galanin’s photographic image Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter (shown above). The past is suggested with the photograph on the left, which comes from a photograph of a Hopi-Tewa woman that was taken in the early 20th century by Edward Curtis. The butterfly whorl hairstyle (sometimes described as “squash blossom”) was worn by unmarried Hopi women. The older photograph is juxtaposed with a promotional photograph on the right of actor Carrie Fisher as the character Princess Leia from “Star Wars.” This juxtaposition references contemporary pop culture but also hints at the past and future too, with reference to a futuristic society that lived “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

Just with the photograph of Ism #1, references to destruction and disturbance are compounded in this photographic print. In the early 20th century, when the controversial artist Edward Curtis was taking his photographs, the US government was involved efforts to “westernize” Indigenous communities and establish legislation and reservation policies that would restrict Indigenous rights. These actions included setting up boarding schools that worked to eradicate traditional Indigenous cultures and languages. Edward Curtis’s work, through the sense of false authenticity conveyed through the photographic medium, supported what Galanin calls “the national fantasy that Indigenous people and ways of life were disappearing. The imagery created was often staged with props Curtis carried with him, to construct photos that would eventually be used as a standard for disappearing tradition and authenticity.” With this context of destruction and cultural disturbance in mind, a Star Wars fan can’t help but think of the destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet, Alderaan, in “Episode IV: A New Hope” due to the machinations of the Galactic Empire.

Juxtaposing these images draws attention to issues of cultural appropriation and inaccurate constructs. Galanin explains on his Flickr portfolio, “In borrowing from Indigenous aesthetics, the image projects settler claims to Indigenous culture into the future. The title speaks to consumer culture’s desire to claim ‘Native inspired’ looks, while simultaneously refusing Indigenous people the agency to define Indigenous culture in an increasingly hybrid world. I point out that while non-Native ‘things’ look Native to the non-Natives who produce them, Natives continue to be held to historical constructs of Native-ness devised by non-Natives.” The horizontal split between the images creates visual competition, which emphasizes that these historical constructs for Natives still exist today. I appreciate that the faces of the figures are aligned as closely as possible, however, since that suggests to me that Native and non-Native cultures have the potential to come together in a balanced and respectful way.

(And on a side note, First Nation K’ómox artist Andy Everson includes references to Star Wars in his work as a way to reference dichotomies in life and reflect on cultural heritage. Andy was photographed in an Imperial Stormtrooper costume, covered with formline designs, by Navajo artist Will Wilson for his ongoing photographic project Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX). You can learn more about the work of these two artists here.)

I look forward to following Nicholas Galanin’s work! His “Never Forget” installation from 2021 also caught my attention, as it raises related questions about past, present, commodification and commercialism (even a different type of reference to Hollywood!), but directly and forthrightly addresses settler land occupation.

1 Christopher Green presentation at Central Washington University, April 30, 2021.

2 Ibid. I appreciate that Christopher Green drew attention to these layers specifically in his presentation.

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Blue-Skinned Demons, Monsters, and Gods

Detail of Blue demon and snakes with another demon, Tomb of the Blue Demons, Necropolis of Tarquinia, Lazio, Italy. 5th century BC, Etruscan

Detail of Blue demon and snakes with another demon, Tomb of the Blue Demons, Necropolis of Tarquinia, Lazio, Italy. 5th century BC, Etruscan

Last week my students and I were discussing the blue demons that are found in some Etruscan tombs. We were exploring two different reasons which might explain why these demons have blue skin. One theory is that the blue skin is a depiction of rotting human flesh: these demons are embodiments of death.1 A different, yet also related theory, is that the blue color relates to the skin discoloration which occurs when someone is bit by a deadly, poisonous snake, specifically an adder.2

During this discussion, two different students mentioned that the blue skin reminded them of demons and religious figures found in other cultures. I never thought too deeply about how blue skin appears in different cultures across the world, and I thought I’d make a little compilation of a few noteworthy examples.

Soga Shôhaku, (1730-1781), Blue Oni, detail from a hanging scroll depicting the Sessen Doji story. Ink on silk, hanging scroll, about 1770s

Soga Shôhaku, (1730-1781), Sessen Doji (Sessendoujizu) scene with a blue oni, detail from a hanging scroll. Ink on silk, about 1770s, Keishouji Temple.

The oni is an ogre or troll, and it is a common figure in Japanese folklore. They have distinctive long horns, which makes them appear to be a combination of both beasts and humans. Onis most commonly appear with blue, red or green skin, and they are often clad in tiger skin. One particular representation of the oni that I like is from the 18th century (shown above), in a painting by Soga Shôhaku. Here, an oni is used to depict a demon from the Sessen Doji tale.

In thinking about the various colors which can be used for the oni’s skin, I wonder if color is supposed to suggest that the figure is inhuman. From what I can tell, the color of the skin doesn’t matter (since red, blue, and green are all used), but all of the colors are very different from how human skin actually appears. To me, the blue skin of the no suggests that the figure is otherworldly, which by extension makes the figure seem more threatening to me. The creators of the film Avatar used blue skin for the same reason; they played with modern associations regarding skin color and race to make sure that moviegoers could perceive these figures not only as aliens, but as Others.

Krishna Fluting for the Gopis, page from an illustrated Dashavatara series, ca. 1730. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 10 1/4 x 8 in.

Krishna Fluting for the Gopis, page from an illustrated Dashavatara series, ca. 1730. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 10 1/4 x 8 in.

In some cases, though, the color blue has much more significance than to draw a visual distinction of difference between a the figure-in-question and a human audience. Such is the case with Hindu art, in which more than one blue-skinned figure appears. Perhaps the most common figure who can appear with blue skin is Vishnu (who can also appear with blue skin as Krishna, considered by many to be an avatar of Vishnu). Some claim that the blue skin in this religious context has positive connotations, suggesting the sky and the limitlessness of the sky and universe. Blue also references life and the forces of life, since bodies of water can appear blue. Finally, others assert that the color blue in Hinduism is used to describe manliness, bravery, a stable mind and a depth of character. How curious that the color blue can suggest a depth of character in Hinduism, whereas the blue color in Japanese folklore seems to suggest an inhuman creature (which perhaps implies a lack of character or positive human feeling, right?)!

Vishnu Vishvarupa, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800-20 Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 38.5 x 28cm Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Vishnu Vishvarupa, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800-20 Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 38.5 x 28cm Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I know of a few other instances where blue-skinned figures appear, too. In Balinese culture the traditional gods can appear with blue skin. A traditional Balinese monster, the oguh-oguh, also can appear with blue skin (although various colors are used to depict the oguh-oguh, so the color doesn’t seem to be a qualifying feature).

Do you know of other cultural instances in which blue-skinned figures occur in art? If you know of other cultural and/or symbolic associations with blue skin too, please share!

1 How Art Made the World: To Death and Back, directed by Nick Murphy. London: BBC, 2005. Available online: https://youtu.be/ekR_kPJVTtA?list=PLE84B4973D9F49E44

2 Kristin Lee Hostetler, “Serpent Iconography,” in Etruscan Studies 10, no. 16 (2007): 203.

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Mirrors and Optical Effects in Ukiyo-e Prints

Hokusai, "Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror," 1805. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Hokusai, “Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror,” 1805. Image courtesy Wikipedia

In a recent podcast on Hokusai from Stuff You Missed in History Class,  I learned an interesting detail about Hokusai’s biography and background. Although it is difficult to create a comprehensive biography on Hokusai, we do know that his uncle was a mirror polisher. This was a skilled profession since mirrors were made out of bronze at the time (which was the late 18th and early 19th century, during the Edo period in Japan). As a young boy, Hokusai was adopted by his uncle, Nakajima Ise. His uncle intended to train Hokusai to become a mirror polisher too. Although Hokusai did not end up following this profession (we can tell that he went another direction by the time he was a teenager), the exposure to his uncle’s line of work caused “reflections, refractions, lenses, and optical effects [to become] a huge part of Hokusai’s work.”1

This comment in the podcast made me decide to look and see what examples I could find of mirrors and reflections in Hokusai prints. One of the more popular examples available online is Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror (shown above). However, in my research I have found that the other ukiyo-e print maker, Kitagawa Utamaro, also made a lot of prints which depict women looking in mirrors (see one example directly below). I assume, then, that Hokusai was not only influenced by his background and uncle’s profession, but also by his contemporaries who were producing similar subject matter in their art.

Kitagawa Utamaro, "Woman Before a Mirror" (also called "Beauty at Her Toilet"), c. 1790. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Kitagawa Utamaro, “Woman Before a Mirror” (also called “Beauty at Her Toilet”), c. 1790. Image courtesy Wikipedia. 

In fact, Mara Miller connects the idea of reflections to the production of ukiyo-e prints as a whole: “Ukiyo-e artists thematized perception in countless ways; they were fascinated with the instruments (mirrors, telescopes, and eyeglasses) and the phenomena of perception as a process — lantern light and fireflies and moonlight, mist and shadows and veils. They were fascinated with the act of looking.”2

It is interesting to me how the use of mirrors in these images can play with the ideas of Subjecthood and Objecthood. Do the mirrors make the subjects seem more tantalizing to a (male) viewer, or do the mirrors give more subjecthood to the women who are portrayed (since they are actively engaged in looking)? Mara Miller thinks that the women in these images “assume the right to gaze” at themselves: they employ the power to turn themselves (as subjects) into objects for their own gaze.3

There are lots of examples of reflections and optical effects in ukiyo-e prints, and I thought I’d include some of my favorites below. I especially like these images, because they make me think of how ukiyo-e prints must have influence by the reflections and mirrors that Mary Cassatt depicted in her own paintings, such as Mother Combing Her Child’s Hair (1879), Mother and Child (1900), The Mirror (c. 1905), Woman At Her Toilette (1909).

Kitagawa Utamaro, Takashima Ohisa, c. 1795. Woodblock print. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Kitagawa Utamaro, Takashima Ohisa, c. 1795. Woodblock print. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Utamaro, Woman Breastfeeding Her Child

Kitagawa Utamaro, “Woman Breastfeeding Her Child,” late 18th century.

This print especially reminds me of Cassatt’s Mother and Child (1900), since the baby’s head is slightly visible in the mirror, similar to how Cassatt paints the reflection of little baby buttocks in her mirror!

Utagawa Toyohiro (1773-1828), Daruma Looking in a Mirror at the Reflection of a Woman behind Him, late-18th or early-19th century

Utagawa Toyohiro (1773-1828), Daruma Looking in a Mirror at the Reflection of a Woman behind Him, late-18th or early-19th century

Hokusai, Megana-ya (Seller of Eyeglasses), c. 1811-1814

Hokusai, Megana-ya (Seller of Eyeglasses), c. 1811-1814

Hokusai, Reflection in Lake at Misaka in Kai Province, from the series "Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji," ca. 1830-32. Woodblock print.

Hokusai, Reflection in Lake at Misaka in Kai Province, from the series “Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji,” ca. 1830-32. Woodblock print.

If you have a favorite ukiyo-e print (or Mary Cassatt painting!) with mirrors or optical effects that I did not include, please share and comment below!

1 Holly Frye and Tracy V. Wilson, “Hokusai,” podcast from Stuff You Missed in History Class (quote found approx. 7:30 into recording). Accessed August 18, 2015. Available online HERE.  

2 Mara Miller, “Art and the Construction of Self and Subject in Japan,” in Self as Image in Asian Theory and Practice by  Roger T. Ames, Thomas P. Kasulis, Wimal Dissanayake, eds. (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1988), p. 444. Available online HERE.

3 Ibid., 445. Available online HERE.

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“A History of the World” Snippets

For the past few months, I have been listening to podcasts of A History of the World in 100 Objects while I exercise. The clips are engaging and interesting, and they provide some distraction for me while I run. I’ve learned and pondered a lot of things in the process, and I wanted to write down a few snippets of things that have stood out of me in the various episodes I have heard.

Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 BCE. Wooden box with inlaid mosaic

Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 BCE. Wooden box with inlaid mosaic. British Museum.

The Standard of Ur: I first learned about the Standard of Ur when I was in high school, I think. But I’ve never thought much about the size of this object. Neil MacGregor describes this as “the size of a small briefcase” which looks “almost like a giant bar of Toblerone.”1

I’ve never realized that this famous object was so small! Since it has the nickname of a “standard,” I just assumed that it was a larger size. I also was interested to learn that the inlaid stone and shell come from various locations: Afghanistan (lapis lazuli), India (red marble), and shell (the Gulf).2 These various mediums indicate that the Sumerians had an extensive trade network.

If you are interested in learning more about the Standard of Ur and theories surrounding its original function, see HERE.

Head of Augustus, 27-25 BC. British Museum. Image courtesy Aiwok via Wikipedia.

Bronze Head of Augustus, 27-25 BC. British Museum. Image courtesy Aiwok via Wikipedia.

Head of Augustus: I enjoyed learning about this head because it reminded me of discussions that I hold with my students about how ancient art was/is mutilated and stolen in times of war. This statue is no different. It once was part of a complete statue that was on the border of modern Egypt and Sudan. However, an army from the Sudanese kingdom of Meroë invaded this area in 25 BC (led by “the fierce one-eyed queen Candace”), and this army took the statue back to Meroë.3 The head was buried beneath a temple that was dedicated to this particular Sudanese victory, which meant that every person walking up the stairs to the temple would insult the emperor by stepping on his head.4 Even today, sand of the African desert is visible on the sculpture.

The David Vases, 1351 CE. Porcelain. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The David Vases, 1351 CE. Porcelain. British Museum. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The David VasesI begin listening to this episode without any prior knowledge of these vases, so I was surprised to learn that these were from China (I assumed when reading the episode title that the vases had some nude figure which depicted the biblical David, à la Michelangelo or Donatello.) Nope! These Chinese vases are named after their most famous owner, Sir Percival David.

The thing that is most interesting to me is that, since these vases are dated 13 May 1351, we know that this level of fine quality blue-and-white porcelain predates the Ming dynasty (the dynasty from 1358-1644, which is typically associated with fine blue and white porcelain). In fact, we also know that the blue and white tradition is not Chinese in origin, but Middle Eastern! Neil MacGregor explains how Chinese potters used Iranian blue pigment cobalt (which was known in China as huihui qing – “Muslim blue”).5 Interestingly, Chinese artists even used Iranian blue pigment for exports sent to the Middle East, to meet the Iranian demand for blue and white ware after the Mongol invasion destroyed pottery industries in the area.It’s interesting to me that Iranian blue traveled to China, only to travel back to its area of origin as export pottery decoration.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, completed 1248. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, completed 1248. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Sainte-Chapelle and the Crown of Thorns: This chapel was not featured in the podcast specifically, but it was discussed at length in the episode for the Holy Thorn Reliquary. Sainte-Chapelle is a church that was built basically to be a reliquary, to house the Crown of Thorns. Surprisingly, the Crown of Thorns cost more than three times the amount paid to build Sainte-Chapelle!7  Today the Crown of Thorns is housed in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; it was moved there by Napoleon in the 19th century.

I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of the Crown of Thorns coming to Paris, and I wanted to learn more on my own. Louis IX dressed in a simple tunic (without royal robes) and walked through the streets barefoot while he carried the relic. The barefoot king is depicted in the Relics of the Passion window in Sainte-Chapelle. I also learned through my own research that the Crown of Thorns, while on its way to Paris, was housed in a cathedral in Sens overnight. This moment was honored in a window from Tours, which depicts Louis IX holding the thorns on a chalice.

The other thing I found interesting about the arrival of the Crown of Thorns is that this elevated the status of France among the Christian countries of Europe. “When the crown arrived, it was described as being on deposit with the king of France until the Day of Judgment, when Christ would return to collect it and the kingdom of France would become the kingdom of heaven.”8

Are there any episodes/chapters from A Short History of the World in 100 Objects that you particularly enjoy? Please share!

1 Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (New York: Penguin Group, 2011), p. 72.

2 Ibid., 72-73.

3 Ibid., 225 

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid, 413. 

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 425. Sainte-Chapelle cost 40,000 livres to build. The Crown of Thorns was bought from the Venetians for 135,000 livres (400 kilograms of gold). MacGregor writes that The Crown of Thorns was “probably the most valuable thing in Europe at the time.”

8 Ibid., 427.

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The World Fair and Datsolalee’s Baskets

Photograph of Datsolalee (also spelled "Dat-so-la-lee")

Photograph of Louisa Keyser, called Datsolalee (also spelled “Dat-so-la-lee”)

It’s always interesting to me when art historical worlds collide. Just yesterday I was writing about how Anna Alma-Tadema, the daughter of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, exhibited the watercolor The Drawing Room at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chacago. And then today, in a tour of an exhibition of American Indian art curated by David W. Penney, I learned that the Washoe basketweaver Louisa Keyser (called “Datsolalee”) exhibited her basketwork at this same exhibition! In fact, Penney said that this exhibition helped Datsolalee to achieve more fame and renown for her basketweaving.1

Louisa Keyser (Datsolalee), Basket bowl ("Morning Lights" style, as dubbed by the artist), 1907. Willow shoots, redbud shoots, bracken fern root.

Louisa Keyser (Datsolalee), Degikups (“day-gee-coops”) basket bowl (“Harbor Lights” design, as dubbed by Keyser’s dealer), 1907. Willow shoots, redbud shoots, bracken fern root.

It’s striking to me how a Western taste for “the exotic” can be found in just these two examples that I have been thinking about this week, although the “exotic” looks to two different non-Western cultures. Anna Alma-Tadema’s watercolor contains textiles, tilework, and laquered furniture which are Eastern and/or Eastern-inspired in style. The inclusion of Datsolalee’s baskets in the 1893 fair is one way that Westerners were interested in American Indian cultures. This fair also was the first to include a live exhibition of American Indians (see one photo HERE).2

It seems to me that such live exhibitions and displays could help to disseminate an understanding of American Indian culture on some basic level, but the sheer spectacle and to-be-looked-at-ness of these displays suggest an “exoticization” and Other-ing on part of the Westerners to who organized and attended the fair. Although I realize that this Western interest in (and exploitation of!) the exotic can be found at many other of the World Fairs that were held during the 19th century and beyond, I think that this particular fair is somewhat-wryly appropriate, since the Columbian Exposition celebrated the 400th year that Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492. Given this context, it seems fitting that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show performed at the exposition, just outside the main entrance to the fair!3

Datsolalee is an interesting artist to me, especially since she was able to be successful, due to and in spite of the Western culture which encroached and superimposed itself on her people. Datsolalee’s people, the Washoe, are from the area in the United States called northwest Nevada. She married a man of mixed blood, Charlie Keyser, and made her living as a camp cook and laundress, but her skills at basketweaving were soon recognized by Amy and Abram Cohn. The Cohns became Datsolalee’s art dealers (in fact, they gave her the “Datsolalee” nickname, perhaps as a marketing strategy) and promoted her work.4 She wove baskets for Cohn’s Emporium for thirty years until her death. (Read more details of her biography HERE and an article written in the Reno Evening Gazette just after her death in 1925.)

Abram "Abe" Cohn with baskets by Datsolalee

Dealer Abram “Abe” Cohn with baskets by Datsolalee

One of the reasons why Datsolalee is well-known today is not just because she achieved exposure through Cohn’s Emporium or the Columbian Exposition, nor just because of her impressive craftsmanship (her best work is recorded to be baskets that had eighty strands to an inch!), but because of the cataloging of her baskets that was done by her dealer, as well as the bill of sale that was given with her baskets. The Cohns wrote these bills of sale to include several detailed bits of information: a description of the basket, stitches to the inch, the design of the basket, the amount of time it took to create the basket, and Datsolalee’s handprint. Datsolalee used her handprint, which was copyrighted, as a signature! As a result, these baskets were easily identified and connected back to her, which wasn’t always the case with American Indian weavers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the Cohns were known to fabricate and exaggerate elements of Datsolalee’s biography, as well as include incorrect information on the bills of sale, these bills still helped to connect the baskets to Datsolalee as a specific, unique individual.5

On one hand, the “exoticizing” of American Indian culture and craft at Western venues like the 1893 Columbian Exposition likely spread some inaccurate information or perceptions of American Indians to those who visited the fair. At the same time, though, this Western venue helped to promote Datsolalee and her basketweaving. And, thanks to the the detailed bills of sale written by Datsolalee’s art dealer, we know about Datsolalee today (although, admittedly one needs to separate the truth from myth). I think these points help illustrate that the dissemination and preservation of knowledge, especially accurate knowledge, is a tricky thing when it comes to cross-cultural interactions.

What do you know of other ways in which Westerners helped to preserve the information about American Indian craftsmen and artists? Do you know anything else about Datsolalee which interests you? I learned today that she requested to be buried with one of the last baskets she made, which I thought was fitting.

1 Tour with David W. Penney, Seattle Art Museum, February 10, 2015.

2 Elizabeth Hutchinson, The Indian Craze: Primitivism, Modernism, and Transculturation in American Art, 1890–1915 (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 43. Available online HERE.

3 Marsha C. Bol, “Defining Lakota Tourist Art,” in Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds, by Ruth B. Phillips, Christopher B. Steiner, eds. (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 1999), p. 200. Available online HERE.

4 The name “Dat-so-la-lee” means “Big Hips” in Washoe. However, I also found elsewhere that the nickname was actually due to “Dr. S.L. Lee,” the first white man to admire and take an interest in Datsolalee’s baskets. See HERE.

5 For more information on the myths that were propagated by the Cohns, see Christopher Ross, “Datsolalee and the Myth Weavers” in The Historical Nevada Magazine: Outstanding Historical Features from the Pages of Nevada Magazine by Richard Moreno, ed. (Reno, Nevada; University of Nevada Press, 1999), 86-94. Available online HERE.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.