Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Seattle Art Museum's Barbara Brotherton

The native art curator discusses the musuem's new exhibit Indigenous Beauty.

By Seth Sommerfeld February 12, 2015

Explore the art of native cultures from around North America with Seattle Art Museum's Indigenous Beauty.

Niimiipu (Nez Perce),Man's shirt, ca. 1850, hide, porcupine quills, horsehair, wool, glass beads, pigment, 32 11/16 x 60 2/3 in.

Barbara Brotherton.

Seattle Art Museum has long been at the forefront of displaying Northwest native art under the direction of native art curator Barbara Brotherton. But SAM's latest exhibit expands that focus from coast to coast. Drawing from Charles and Valerie Diker’s celebrated collection, Indigenous Beauty features over 100 vivid cultural relics in a variety of mediums that illuminate the styles and traditions of tribes from across the continent. Alongside the collection, SAM presents a companion exhibit, Seattle Collects Northwest Coast Native Art, featuring 60 exquisite rarely seen works from local private collectors.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Brotherton about the scope and history of Indigenous Beauty, the persistence of aesthetics, and Northwest native linguistics.

What aspects of the Indigenous Beauty exhibit excite you as the curator?

The number one thing—and the reason why I wanted to work on this exhibition so much—is to give Seattle and our regional visitors a chance to see such a breadth of art from indigenous peoples. We showcase the Northwest Coast material a lot, but since I’ve been in Seattle—since 1982—I don’t think there has ever been an exhibition that shows all of native North America. So that really excites me: providing our visitors in the region who dedicatedly come to see our Northwest Coast exhibitions an opportunity to see something broader than that.

Breaking outside that Northwest bubble, is there anything in the exhibit that you especially adore from a different region of the continent?

Oh gee… what would that be? The great thing is that I have been able to spend quality time with all of these pieces as they’ve been unpacked and installing. I’ve really become enamored with some pieces from the Northeast, which I know less about just from my own training. There are some wonderful pieces like an Anishinaabe shoulder bag that has the porcupine quills, because those were used to decorate objects before glass beads came into the area. So this is a kind of object that sits on that threshold before traditions were impacted (by Europeans).

The other thing you’ll see in the show is the very innovative way in which artists begin to incorporate new material in their work, and how they keep the ethos and the importance of their tradition, but inventively change the media. There are a handful of pieces like this pouch, a comb, and a pipe that are from that period of time when native peoples are encountering European military and fur traders and then begin their sort of diplomacy and negotiation. So there are pieces that really tie into the history of our country and our nation. There are pieces like that that are amazing.

And then on the Plains; we associate so much Plains art with beadwork, and there is just a fabulous array of clothing and regalia. There’s a beautiful, beautiful dress that actually is from the Columbia River area. It is from the late 19th century, and it is completely embroidered on the whole top of it with these glass beads, which of course were imported. You see the very creative ways in which traditional clothing started to become reflective of these intercultural connections.

In addition to Indigenous Beauty, SAM is also presenting Seattle Collects Northwest Coast Native Art. Why was it important to have those two exhibits running concurrently?

All of the (pieces in) Indigenous Beauty and Seattle Collects come from private collections, so these are works of art that are rarely seen—or in some cases, never been seen—by the public. The Dikers have exhibited their work before, but their last show was 2006 and was on the East Coast. And they’ve acquired new things since then. So they haven’t published, and they haven’t been publicly seen. The same with Seattle Collects. Our local collectors continue to acquire things. Again, it’s making things available to the public.

But also, there’s a certain spirit of collecting here by our collectors who live in the Northwest. Many of them are transplants from other places, and they came here because of the allure of the Northwest. They support the local artists, and they are a very congenial group of people that support one another. They just love the history and the connection with this region. I think you get a sense of that spirit in Seattle Collects; just the love of the local, really.

What do you think is the role of SAM in the Seattle community to promote and display native art? And why do you think that’s so essential to Seattle’s cultural tapestry?

I get a lot of calls from teachers because they’re teaching this material in their classrooms and they’re really eager for good resources. But in the last decade, there’s just been such a shift, here and elsewhere, in the importance of including our shared history with indigenous people. These histories didn’t always run parallel, but actually they crossed at many different junctures. So it’s important to bring that out in a way that is a more balanced perspective. With the art, I think we have a responsibility to let people know that even in the face of tremendous change and upheaval, the art and the notion of aesthetics persists. It definitely changes, but it remains a significant part of the culture. And in some cases, it continues unbroken until today. In other cases, native groups had to revitalize older traditions. It gives people a sense of that history and the way in which material culture changed, innovated, was lost, was revived. And I think that’s a perspective that isn’t always very predominant.

The other thing is there’re a lot of indigenous peoples from all over that live in Seattle. Just planning the show, I’ve already had encounters with a number of individuals who just express how meaningful it is to be able to see these works from their own traditions. It’s a source of pride for them that it’s acknowledged as a great art tradition, and is being shown in an art museum. It has meaning. The meaning isn’t always, “Oh yes, it’s going to help us revive something that’s been forgotten,” it’s, “Here’s a part of our past, and it still speaks to us today in a number of ways.”

Do you have any favorite exhibits you've seen over the past year or so?  

There’s a great show on at the Burke right now that speaks to what I was just telling you about how collections inspire contemporary native artists. They have an exhibition called Here and Now, where artists came in, and were inspired, and created pieces based on that.

If you weren’t a curator, is there any other line of work you’d want to pursue?

Yes. I’m actually really interested in native languages, and I’ve had the opportunity to study one. So I think maybe I would have been a linguist.

What native language did you study?


Where does that originate?

It’s a dialect of Puget Salish. And there’s a Southern Lushootseed and a Northern Lushootseed. And it’s spoken from just south of Olympia to south of Bellingham: this big swath of the Puget Sound region. I actually learned the Northern dialect because my teacher was Upper Skagit; so from King County to Bellingham.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

One of the things that really strikes me is that native art was never static, it was always changing, even before (European) contact. To come face to face with these objects, you see really the inventive spirit of those artists. 

Indigenous Beauty
Feb 12–May 17, Seattle Art Museum, $20

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