Art from the Archives: Northwest Coast and Inuit Prints and Drawings

Stowed away in the Archives of the Penn Museum is an extremely interesting collection.  Prints of bold patterned scenes, affectionate polar bears swimming in the sea, and downright unusual images make up the collection of art made by indigenous people of the Northwest Coast.  This summer, as an intern in the archives, I had the opportunity to study these pieces and experience them first hand. The art now makes up an exhibition for others to get a taste of it too.

The museum is primarily known as housing great collections of ancient artifacts enriched with history from many years ago. What most people don’t realize about the museum is that it also collects some contemporary artwork as well.  Not only were these beautiful Northwest Coast pieces collected within the past few decades, but they also were created from the 1950’s onward. These prints and sculptures give an insight into life of the indigenous people past and present, and remind us that the museum is an active, modern space dedicated to anthropology, then and now.

Traditionally, the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast made art in the form of clothing, pottery, tools, wood carvings, and more. However, since World War II, co-operatives meant to boost the local economy were set up by federal civil servants in Canada and introduced a new art form to the communities. In 1957, A Canadian artist named James A. Houston, who had traveled to Japan and studied printmaking under a Japanese artist, brought the skills and methods he learned back to the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in Cape Dorset, Canada. The Japanese printmaking techniques he introduced have allowed the indigenous artists to expand the range and availability of their work, through which they continue to depict important aspects of their lives and heritage, using traditional imagery and pattern.

Tim Paul Silkscreen print on whitewove paper, 1993 Collected by Ruben Reina, Museum Expedition, 1994 94-15-10

Tim Paul
Silkscreen print on whitewove paper, 1993
Collected by Ruben Reina, Museum Expedition, 1994
94-15-10

Through this non-traditional technique, some artists have chosen to represent the Arctic animals that have played a significant role in their lives. Others interpret visually their legends and mythologies, previously only passed down orally. And some have chosen to depict important scenes from their own lives. All of these ways allow for the rest of the world to get a sense of what they come from, what they find important, and what they are facing today.

Not only do the pieces convey intriguing information, but the style in which they were created makes them magnetic. Animated animals, vibrant colors, and bold form are what keep me coming back to look at them time and time again.

One of the prints that I find to be particularly fascinating in both style and history is entitled “Thunderbird” by Tony Hunt. “Thunderbird” was bequeathed to the museum by Charles Williams Detwiler, Jr.,who had worked for many years in the Egyptian section of the museum. While one may wonder why an Egyptian expert would have possessed art so entirely different from that of Ancient Egypt, merely examining the print defogs the mystery. The piece’s spirited and strong pattern paired with its vibrant color make it impressive.

Tony Hunt Silkscreen print on paper, n.d.  Bequest of Charles Williams Detwiler, Jr.

Tony Hunt
Silkscreen print on paper, n.d.
Bequest of Charles Williams Detwiler, Jr.

Another interesting layer to the print is the history of the artist. Tony Hunt is an expert carver in Canada, who is also a descendant of George Hunt. Starting in 1886, George Hunt was the Tlingit informant (as well as a linguist and ethnologist in his own right) to anthropologist Franz Boas while Boas was studying the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia. Boas is now known as a pioneer of modern anthropology and regarded as the “Father of American Anthropology.” Throughout the research I did to prepare the exhibition I encountered connections like these that pop up throughout all of the art.

The appeal of Northwest Coast art reaches anyone with an interest in history, anthropology, and art. With major artists such as Tony Hunt, Kananginak Pootoogook, and Kenojuak Ashevak, this collection is filled with impressive prints and sculpture. Authentic narratives, shamanic dreams, and purely aesthetic beauty are all represented in this exhibition, now on display in the hallway off of the Mesoamerican Gallery, connecting the museum to the archives.

Click here for more information on Inuit Printmaking.

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