Travel to the Northwest Pacific Coast and experience the rich heritage of the indigenous peoples, portrayed in dramatic stories and striking art objects. This exhibition offers a unique opportunity for Museum visitors to discover the rich, vibrant cultural life of the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. The early inhabitants of this region crafted elaborate, sophisticated stories about the world that surrounded them — an enormous temperate rain forest, with towering trees and access to the Pacific Ocean — which became an enduring part of their artistic and literary legacy. The brightly painted contemporary and historic objects, made both for ceremony and utility, from the Northwest Coast people — Haida, Tlingit, Kwak’waka’wakw, Tsimshian, Coast Salish – illustrate these multi-layered stories, drawing the imagery from the characters who inhabit these supernatural tales.
The exhibition opens with a Circle of Totems, some as high 15 feet, to suggest walking into a village on the Northwest Coast. The story of the totems is enhanced by a video of carver Ken McNeil, and photographic images of people of the Northwest Coast, current and past, portray those who made and created the stories.
“We chose to integrate the supernatural stories into the exhibition because they really bring the art alive for the Museum’s core family audience,” says Maria Mingalone, Berkshire Museum’s director of Curatorial Affairs and Collections. “They are fun, fantastic, and central in Northwest Coast culture and illuminate the objects for those familiar, or unfamiliar, with the art by Northwest Coast people, in a sophisticated, yet accessible way.
Displays of elaborately carved masks, exquisite bentwood boxes, and button blankets illustrate the potlatch, an important ceremony for Northwest Coast native people. The potlatch is a community feast in which a key component is a ceremonial gift-giving. The potlatch may include dramatic costumed storytelling, music, dancing, and singing. A large traditional copper, one of the valuable gifts shared at a potlatch, will be on view, along with ladles and feast bowls. Large and small drums and whistles accompanied by specially recorded music will fill the gallery.
Most of the objects in the exhibition date from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and are represented by historically significant artists including Kwak’waka’wakw artists Willy Seaweed, Blackie Dick, and George Hunt, Jr. A number of the many striking pieces are attributable to living artists who continue to incorporate traditional motifs and techniques into their work. Some of the well-known contemporary artists whose work is on view are Robert Davidson (Haida), one of the more prestigious award-winning carvers renown for monumental cedar totem poles; Don Lelooska, master carver and storyteller; Beau Dick, a versatile and talented Canadian artist of Kwak’waka’wakw descent, who creates masks and other objects in the traditional style but also works in a contemporary style; and acclaimed Canadian First Nation artist Susan Point (Coast Salish), who is an innovative artist working in mixed media and one of the first native artists to work in glass.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website