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The politics of Native American basketry

January 9, 2010 |  6:35 am


“If we are not working with Native Americans, we are not doing an exhibition.  It’s that plain and simple,” says Steven M. Karr, interim executive director of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian. “We are not interested in exhibiting things based wholly and solely on our institutional viewpoint. If you are going to look at a particular artistic expression, it’s essential to include the interpretation, nuance and perspective of people who continue to participate in it.”

Radical as his statement may sound, it reflects an approach that has become widely accepted in museum circles. The current case in point is “The Art of Native American Basketry: A Living Tradition,” an exhibition of more than 250 objects at the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park. Karr is the lead curator of the show, but Native American basket weavers selected works from the Southwest’s trove of nearly 14,000 North American baskets to represent 11 geographic regions.

The Southwest’s staff has assembled a reliable group of consultants over the years, Karr says. But a new group was enlisted for the basket show. Thirteen artists, scattered across the country, picked examples representing their tribal heritage and provided information about how the baskets were made and used. Each artist also made a basket that was purchased by the museum and included in the show.

“It was an honor to be chosen and a big surprise that they found me,” says June Pardo who lives in Sutton, Alaska. With a heritage of Alutiiq and Inupiaq, she winnowed dozens of contenders to 15 objects for the Arctic/Subarctic section, including a basket made of seal hide and a pair of moisture-absorbing socks woven of wild grasses.

Her primary concern, she says, “was to be fair to the Alaskan nation and make sure I chose baskets that represented all the regions.”

To read the full story in Sunday’s Arts & Books section, click here.

-- Suzanne Muchnic 

Photo:Native American basket weavers June Pardo, left, and Carol Emarth-Douglas are two of the artists displaying their work in "The Art of Native American Basketry" exhibit at the Autry National Center.

Credit: Bret Hartman/ For The Times