Category: Indigenous

In the Land of the Tlingit


Fortune smiled upon me and I found myself in the land of the Tlingit from June 7th to June 14th, 2015; I made an all too brief journey to Southeast Alaska and witnessed many wonderful sights during my brief sojourn. The indigenous Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people all live in the region, but this article will place emphasis on the enduring Tlingit people as I encountered them during my visits to the Alaskan communities of Icy Strait Point, Hoonah, Juneau, and Ketchikan. This essay features some of the photographs I took during my travels.

I am certainly not an expert when it comes to the culture and history of the Tlingit, but I have always had a great affinity for the indigenous of this hemisphere. However, I am writing as a realist painter and printmaker from the metropolis of Los Angeles; I dash off these words as someone who, for a short while, escaped the congested postmodern swamp of L.A. to view another, pristine world.

In the plastic megalopolis where I live, art has degenerated into little more than a voguish commodity, largely disconnected from community and history. Art functions differently in the land of the Tlingit, and we have much to learn from them when it comes to an arts philosophy. This essay is presented in that spirit.


Icy Strait Point on Chichagof Island, Alaska. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

My first stop was Icy Strait Point on Chichagof Island, which in actuality is the extreme outskirt of nearby Hoonah, Alaska’s largest Tlingit village. The Tlingit call their lands, Lingít Aaní, (roughly, “Land of the Tlingit” or “Tlingit Nation”). The meaning of the name “Tlingit” can be interpreted as “People of the tides.” It is not known when they settled the area, but evidence points to their being in the region for at least 3,000 years. Beginning in 1700 the Tlingit were forced from their villages in Glacier Bay by an advancing glacier. They eventually settled in a place they called Xunniyaa, “shelter from the north wind,” which is today’s Hoonah.

At Icy Strait Point, temperate rain forest stretches to the sea. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

At Icy Strait Point, temperate rain forest stretches to the sea. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The environment at Icy Strait Point is dazzling beyond words; deep blue Pacific waters meet broad pebbled beaches strewn with driftwood, mussel and clam shells. Above the shoreline a lush rainforest dense with cypress and pine trees, ferns, wildflowers, and thick carpets of moss, looms above the sea. Higher up still one finds verdant mountain forests and majestic peaks capped with snow and ice; bear hunt for salmon in the icy rivers and streams.

In the days before European colonization, the Tlingit, like the other indigenous people in the region, lived as fishermen, hunters, mariners, gatherers, and traders in an environment so plentiful that acquiring food did not present a problem. The abundance and variety of food, and the easy access the Tlingit had to it, cannot be overstated. It led to the people having the leisure time to develop a sophisticated art and culture.

By 1912 the place now called Icy Strait Point was transformed into a major hub for the U.S. commercial salmon fishing industry. A huge processing factory and cannery was built at the untouched natural bay, which also served as a dock for the fishing fleet. It would not be until the mid-1990’s that the Tlingit people were able to reassert control over that land.


At Icy Strait Point, the author stands next to a Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Photo/Jeannine Thorpe ©

In 1996 the Tlingit-owned Huna Totem Corporation in nearby Hoonah purchased the old cannery, and in 2001 renamed the land Icy Strait Point. The cannery has been transformed into a museum and retail shops; boating, flying, bicycle tours and kayak adventures are conducted out of the village, which is also home to the world’s largest zip-line. Vendors sell fresh caught crab and fresh grilled salmon. “Eco-tourism” is big in Icy Strait Point; one can book tours that will have you walking through glacier-made landscapes, rain forests, and evergreen forests. There are whale watching tours where Orca and Humpbacks abound. Southeast Alaska’s only on-site brown bear viewing is at Icy Strait.

There are a number of impressive totem poles to be found at Icy Strait Point. Totem poles were, and are, narratives that carry on oral traditions, honor ancestors and sacred animal spirits, and mark social or historic events. They also provide identity, as the Tlingit are divided into two moieties or descent groups: Eagle and Raven. The moieties are divided into clans, and clans are further divided into houses. Each entity has its own history, tales, heroes, and guardian spirits, all of which are carved on the totem poles belonging to each tribal group. Traditionally, totem poles were raised in front of community Tribal Houses.


Detail of Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

It might surprise the reader to know that salmon eggs played a role in Tlingit art. Pigments – red, green, white, yellow, brown, were derived from minerals; black was obtained from charcoal or coal. These pigments were ground on stones until they became powdered, and then mixed in stone bowls with a little water and crushed salmon eggs. In European tempera painting, the old masters mixed crushed mineral pigments with water and chicken egg yolk to obtain vibrant, transparent, and long-lasting paints. In the same way, Tlingit artisans mixed their mineral pigments with fish eggs. The fish oil made for a tough and lustrous paint that handled like, well, oil paint, and it was fairly impervious to the elements! By the end of the nineteenth century, commercial paints started to take the place of fish-egg tempera.


Detail of Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Photo/Mark Vallen ©


Detail of Icy Strait Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Many Tlingit carved and painted to some degree, but when something special was required, an artist of great talent was paid for their skills. Such an artist carried a box full of brushes tipped with soft porcupine hair; brush handles were usually made from carved cedar wood. Up to a dozen such brushes of various sizes were stored in the box, along with other necessary tools like pigments, fish eggs, carved sharpened sticks for drawing, and cedar bark stencils for laying out patterns. Tlingit artists never attempted to shade with their colors, nor did they mix them. While Tlingit art always presented form in a realistic manner, the European understanding of perspective was entirely unknown.


"Indian Village" - Mary Blair. Storyboard art for the 1953 animated Disney film, Peter Pan, depicting a stereotypical and inaccurate teepee village and totem pole. Starting in the 1940s, the talented Ms. Blair was a prominent artist at the Walt Disney Company.

Hollywood movies and cartoons spread the notion that “Indians” lived in teepees next to garish totem poles.

In reality totem poles are a unique art form created only by the indigenous people of the Northwest coastal region, the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, Bella Coola, and Nootka.

Totem poles were never created as religious objects to be worshipped. Europeans came up with the term “low man on the totem pole,” a reference to the order of figures placed on the poles, to describe someone without power or social status. In reality, it was not dismissive for a figure to be placed at or near the bottom of a pole. The multiple figures carved on a pole told a story, but one usually understood only by the clan or family that owned it.


A cedar wood carving of an Orca is mounted at the entrance of the Heritage Center Native Theater in Icy Strait Point. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The Heritage Center Native Theater at Icy Strait Point is where presentations of Tlingit history, dance, art and music are made. Constructed as a replica of a traditional cedar plank Tribal House, the theater provides a glimpse into the living traditions of the Tlingit.


Detail of Totem Pole carved by Jimmy Marks that stands in front of the Heritage Center Native Theater at Icy Strait Point. Photo/Mark Vallen ©


Detail of Totem Pole carved by Jimmy Marks that stands in front of the Heritage Center Native Theater at Icy Strait Point. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Standing in front of the center are two splendid totem poles that were carved by the late Jimmy Marks, who is still widely hailed as a Tlingit master carver whose unique designs are immediately recognizable. Born with the Tlingit name of Jakwteen in 1941, Marks worked in the Hoonah fishing fleet as a fisherman. He became known for his carvings and eventually became a carving instructor. He was fluent in the Tlingit language, and taught it in the Juneau School District Indian Studies Program. Marks passed away in 2009 at the age of 67, but his works continue to inspire.

Icy Strait Point is home to Lisa Andersson (Yak x waan tlaa) and Jeffery Skaflestad (Sei ya Eesh), two impressive artists who create traditional weavings, carvings, drums, and moccasins of the highest quality; they sell their works at Dei L’e.aan, Andersson’s store in the transformed cannery. Mr. Skaflestad has a work table set up in the store where he diligently hand carves traditional wood masks using hand tools. I spent some time talking with the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Skaflestad. Sensitive to my interest, he regaled me with stories on woodcarving, the production of Tlingit armor, and methods of producing the world renown “bentwood box.”


The work table of Jeffery Skaflestad (Sei ya Eesh). Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The traditional bentwood box is made from a single cedar plank, shaped and molded through a process of steaming. The boxes are made without a single nail or corner joint, lids for the boxes were similarly produced. The boxes can be elaborately carved, inlaid, and painted or left plain, depending on its intended use. In the old days the wooden cases were used as furniture, shelves, treasure chests, and storage containers. They stored wardrobes, ritual objects, or served as pantries. The boxes were so well constructed that they were even used to cook food. Water in a bentwood box could be brought to a boil by dropping heated stones into the container – just add cuts of salmon!

I had a conversation with a Tlingit woman at Icy Strait Point who, like many locals, is a shareholder in the Huna Totem Corporation. Bright, enthusiastic, and fiercely proud of her heritage, she exemplified all the people I talked to who work in the small town. She told me that collective ownership of the village had brought economic sustainability to her people. Great care had been taken to present the true face of indigenous culture, keeping out most of the cheap, kitschy trinkets in favor of locally made indigenous arts and crafts. She informed me that so far, proceeds from sales made in Icy Strait Point provided a half-million dollars in educational scholarships to Tlingit youth.

The forested mountains surrounding the village of Hoonah. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The forested mountains surrounding the village of Hoonah. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Less than a 2 mile walk from Icy Strait Point is its parent village of Hoonah. Commercial fishing and processing still employs many, but the work is seasonal and grueling. The timber “industry” was the second largest industry in Alaska during the 1970s, but when it collapsed, tourism became the economic lifeblood of Hoonah. With a population of around 800 individuals, 80% are Tlingit, and most of them work at Icy Strait.

I was told time and again that Hoonah is the face of the real Alaska. It is a small, working class enclave fully integrated into a magnificent natural landscape. Colorful rustic homes, mom and pop stores and eateries, picturesque harbors, community centers and churches dot the landscape.


American Bald Eagle in Hoonah. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

American Bald Eagles perch on telephone poles and rooftops; ravens are everywhere, and they are the biggest ravens I have ever seen… in more ways than one. A traditional Tlingit creation story tells us that Raven brought light into the newly created world. I was enormously impressed by the Ravens I saw, and will be drawing them in future artworks.

At Hoonah an extremely important undertaking for the Tlingit is now underway, the building of a traditional Tribal House. The Tlingit have not had such a structure in their homeland for over 250 years. At present Tlingit master carvers Gordon Greenwald, Herb Sheakley, and Owen James are laboring in a workshop next to Hoonah High School, carving totem poles and other items for the project. It was my intention to visit the workshop, not just to assess the endeavor’s progress, but to learn a few things from the committed indigenous artisans. As fate would have it, their workshop was closed when I arrived in the late afternoon, but I can still tell you what I know of their work.


Detail of Hoonah High School Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. The fish depicted on the pole is a Pacific Halibut. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The Hoonah Indian Association reached an agreement with the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) to build the 2500 square foot Tribal House on the shoreline of Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park, the ancestral homeland of the Tlingit. Construction has already begun and it is scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2016, just in time for the centennial year of the NPS.

The large plank house has been called Xúna Shuká Hit by tribal elders, which roughly translates into “Hoonah House of Ancestry.” The House will represent both the Eagle and Raven Moiety, and will provide a center for sacred ceremonies, tribal knowledge, workshops, and meetings. It will also be open to park visitors who will have the opportunity to learn about Tlingit culture and history firsthand.

To reach the new Tribal House, one must first cross the actual Icy Strait passage that separates Chichagof Island from Glacier Bay National Park. The region is remote, and all travel is done by boat or plane. On the dedication day in the summer of 2016, the Tlingit and their many friends will arrive at the site in dug-out canoes and ferryboats from wherever they live. They will come singing and drumming to usher in a new chapter in their history.


Detail of Hoonah High School Totem Pole created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. The animal depicted on the pole is a bear, its head surrounded by the tentacles of the giant Pacific octopus that is found in Alaskan waters. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Standing in front of Hoonah High School are two enormous and intricately carved totem poles created by Tlingit brothers Mick and Rick Beasley. Brightly painted in red, green, white, and black, the traditional totems at the school are carved in Western Red Cedar; however, they have a modern touch to them. Though based in Juneau, the works of the Brothers Beasley have graced a number of public places, including museums throughout the region. Rick began to carve at the age of eight when he was inspired by his teacher, the aforementioned Jimmy Marks.


"Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clam Shell." - Bill Ray Jr. Mural painted on the outer wall of Juneau City Hall. 1988. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Juneau is the capital city of Alaska. Named after a gold miner from the late 1800s, it is the second largest city in the state with a population of around 32,000. It was impossible not to notice the public indigenous art, or the apparent pride the city has regarding its indigenous history. For instance, the outer wall of Juneau’s City Hall is painted with a beautiful mural that portrays the spirit animals Raven, Bear, Frog, Eagle, Whale, and Wolf that have been so important to First Nations people of the Northwest Coast.


Detail of the supernatural bear from the Juneau City Hall mural by artist Bill Ray Jr. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Painted by local artist Bill Ray Jr. in 1988, the mural depicts the Haida creation story of Raven discovering man, and so is titled Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clam Shell. I certainly cannot say that officialdom in Los Angeles has extended that level of respect to the original people of the L.A. basin, the indigenous Gabrieleño-Tongva.


Sealaska Heritage museum. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Juneau is home to the recently opened Sealaska Heritage museum at the Walter Soboleff Center, in fact I visited the museum just one month after its grand opening on May 15, 2015. It was founded by the Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), a nonprofit organization of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska. The museum’s mission is to showcase indigenous art of the region, but also to rejuvenate it while nurturing future generations of artists. It houses an exhibit space, archives for its extensive collection of art, artifacts, and ephemera, a carving shed for the production of totem poles and other carved items, a gift shop were high-quality indigenous art and crafts are sold, rooms for conducting classes and lectures, and office space for the SHI.


Tlingit Warrior Helmets on display - Photo/Mark Vallen.

During my visit, the Sealaska Heritage museum was exhibiting Tlingit armor, both antique and contemporary. Helmets were usually constructed in two pieces, the collar and the actual helmet, which was carved with supernatural beings, animals, or clan symbols. Collars were created from hard, dense wood burls of spruce, alder, or yew that were made into planks and bent into a circle through steaming. The collar was closed at the back and tied off with a leather thong. Two eye-hole notches were carved into the top of the collar, allowing a warrior to see out, breathing holes were provided, and an internal nose indent was carved. The warrior wearing the collar could bite down on an internal loop of spruce, which acted as a mouth guard but also secured the helmet.

When taking a blow to the head, the warrior could lift his shoulders, causing the helmet to strike the collar rather than his head. The War Helmet in the foreground of the picture shown above, was carved from yew wood in 2014 by Tlingit artist Tommy Joseph. It depicts a female warrior, which was not entirely uncommon; historic accounts mention women that not only engaged in battle, but directed attacks. The woman on the helmet has eyes of inlaid abalone, and is decorated with strands of human hair. She is depicted wearing a labret, or lip ornament. The labret was a sign of high rank not worn by all,  but it was worn exclusively by women. At a very young age, a girl’s lip was pierced with a copper wire, later replaced by a wooden skewer, and by thirteen she began wearing a labret carved of wood.

 A collarless War Helmet carved in 2009 by Tlingit artist Matthew J. Helgeson. The helmet depicts an anthropomorphized spirit animal. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

A collarless War Helmet carved in 2009 by Tlingit artist Matthew J. Helgeson. The helmet depicts an anthropomorphized spirit animal. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

A Tlingit helmet served the practical purpose of protecting its wearer, but with its fearsome carvings of animals or supernatural creatures, the armor was clearly a method of intimidation. The Russians that attempted to conquer the Tlingit during the 1804 battle at Sitka, reported their musket balls being deflected or stopped by the helmets. The Tlingit also wore body armor made from hardwood slates and elk hide that could stop arrows or deflect blows. Warriors were armed with bows and arrows, a variety of clubs, as well as daggers and lances they fashioned from native copper. As trade with Europeans increased, steel replaced copper; Chinese coins were sewn onto leather shirts to make a type of “chain-mail.” But firearms eventually made Tlingit armor obsolete, and the War Helmet evolved into the clan hat at around 1850.

The architectural design of the Sealaska Heritage museum pays homage to ancient ancestors. The huge traditional sculptural motifs constructed of red painted metal and mounted on the cedar façade of the museum’s entrance, represent the “Greatest Echo,” a supernatural being from Haida mythology. The sculpture was created by artist Robert Davidson, who is of Haida and Tlingit descent. In the museum foyer you first see a monumental carved and painted wood house front, of the type that once faced the cedar timber and plank communal village houses that Southeast Alaska indigenous nations made long ago.

In times past such houses were built along the banks of rivers or the ocean, with each facing the water and housing between 20 to 50 individuals. The museum’s 40 ft. wide house front was created by Tsimshian artists David Albert Boxley and his son David Robert Boxley; the carving’s central design tells the Tsimshian story of the earth, and Am’ala, The Man Who Holds Up the Earth. Surrounding that motif are designs representing all the tribes of Southeast Alaska.

But the Boxley mural-like house front is actually an entryway to another room. You have to bend down to go through the small door located in Am’ala’s belly, but it opens into the Shuká Hít (Ancestors’ House), a replica of a traditional clan house that serves as the museum’s public auditorium, performance space, and lecture hall where video can also be projected.

The museum’s glass awnings encircling the building are etched with formline designs created by Northwest Coast indigenous art expert Steve Brown. Formline is the spacial, proportional, and aesthetic basis for all Southeast Alaska/Northwest Coast indigenous art. Remarkably, when the sun shines through Brown’s awnings, the etched glass designs cast their shadows onto the sidewalk, painting in light the ethereal presence of ancient ancestors. All in all these architectural flourishes contribute to a stunning museum, a true gem among America’s art institutions.


Main exhibition room at the Sealaska Heritage museum. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Dr. Walter Soboleff was Tlingit and a civil rights activist who fought for indigenous rights and the revitalization of his people’s culture. He died in 2011 at the age of 102, and the museum was named after him. The ceremonial Clan hat shown below belonged to Soboleff, it happened to be one of the items on display during my visit. Soboleff’s clan was the L’eeneidi of the Raven Moiety, who were referred to as Dog Salmon. The oral traditions of the L’eeneidi say that they migrated down the Stikine River until they reached the coast and settled in Angoon and later Juneau. Their Dog Salmon name and crest was acquired in a supernatural encounter.


Tlingit Dog Salmon clan ceremonial hat. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In 1982 the Sealaska Heritage Institute started a biennial festival called Celebration, a mass gathering of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian nations where their art, culture, dance, oral traditions, and music are shared, not just with one another, but with the entire community of Juneau and beyond. When the festival first began in ’82 it attracted 150 participants, today it attracts many thousands. The upcoming June 8, Celebration 2016 promises to be the largest gathering yet.

Ketchikan was the last stop on my journey. Long ago the Tlingit named a favorite salmon fishing creek in the area the “Thundering Wings of an Eagle,” or “Ketchikan” in their language. When Europeans founded a town there in 1885 they named it Ketchikan. It had been an important fishing village for the Tlingit, and under European colonization it became known as “The Salmon Capital of the World” due to the massive industrialized fishing industry. Today fishing is still important, but tourism has become the number one industry, and Ketchikan Creek is now a favorite destination for tourists. If I needed any reminder of the city’s origins, I heard Tlingit spoken on the streets.

"The Rock" - Bronze statue designed by David Rubin that is located on the downtown waterfront dock of Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

"The Rock" - Bronze statue designed by David Rubin that is located on the downtown waterfront dock of Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Surrounding Ketchikan is the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the U.S. It is named after the Tongass group of Tlingit who originally inhabited Ketchikan. At the city’s downtown waterfront dock, a large bronze sculpture titled The Rock welcomes visitors, setting the pace for the Ketchikan experience. In 2007 the city issued an artists call for public art. Artist Dave Rubin won the commission for his proposed bronze monument, whose seven figures would serve as archetypes for the city’s history. Assisted by sculptors Terry Pyles and Judy Rubin, the monument was completed and publicly unveiled on July 4, 2010.

  "The Rock" - Detail of indigenous woman playing her drum. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

"The Rock" - Detail of indigenous woman playing her drum. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Standing at the top of the sculpture is Chief Johnson, a famous leader of the Ganaxadi Tlingit of the Raven moiety from the Tongass group. At the base of the statue sits an indigenous woman who plays a drum while singing her song of Ketchikan. According to artist Dave Rubin, that song is a historical narrative of Johnson and the figures gathered around him: a logger, fisherman, miner, aviator, and European pioneer woman.

Ketchikan is known for its Saxman Native Village and Totem Park, home to a comprehensive collection of Tlingit totem poles and an indigenous carving center where Tlingit artists continue the tradition of sculpting their narrative pole sculptures hewn from live wood. But here I would like to focus on a lesser known treasure,  a unique piece of Ketchikan public art called the Yeltatzie Salmon. Jones George Yeltatzie (1900-1976) was born in Howkan, Alaska. He was a full-blooded Haida and belonged to the Double Fin Killer Whale clan. He settled in Ketchikan in 1935, and though he worked as a commercial fisherman until his retirement, he gained renown as a master totem carver. As a child he learned how to carve from his father George, who was also an accomplished totem carver.


"Yeltatzie Salmon" - Terry Pyle. Mosaic sculpture. 2012. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In 1963 Yeltatzie received a commission to create a public art piece from the Tourism Committee of the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce; the art was intended as a tourist attraction that would be installed at Ketchikan Creek. Yeltatzie carved and painted, in the traditional manner, a red cedar sculptural depiction of a 10-foot long king salmon. The carving was so impressive that it was displayed in a traveling exhibit for more than a year before it was finally situated at the creek. It was placed next to the city’s Park Avenue Bridge near Ketchikan Creek’s famous “Salmon Ladder,” where the fish annually struggle upstream to spawn.

Vandals twice attacked Yeltatzie’s sculpture. The last time, almost 30 years ago, it was ripped from its pedestal and thrown into the creek where it suffered extreme water damage. Every effort was made to repair the sculpture before it was reinstalled, but alas, by 2011 Jones Yeltatzie’s mighty king salmon had almost totally rotted away and the city took it down.

In 2012 the Ketchikan Public Art Works/Arts Council issued an artist’s call for an artwork to replace Yeltatzie’s salmon. Local artist Terry Pyles won the commission for his concept titled Yeltatzie Salmon – a giant iridescent mosaic covered sculpture of a salmon to honor Jones Yeltatzie. Pyles, a realistic painter who also creates sculpture in wood, and metal, helped create The Rock sculpture that greets visitors at the Ketchikan waterfront. His Yeltatzie Salmon was dedicated in a well attended public ceremony and unveiling on July 4, 2013.


"Yeltatzie Salmon" - (Detail) Terry Pyle. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Terry Pyles’ Yeltatzie Salmon is affixed to a concrete post on the rocky shore of Ketchikan Creek. The sculpture’s multi-colored mosaic tiles flash in the sunlight; the silver fish radiates against the intense green of the creek’s vegetation. The endless sound of babbling waters creates a soothing and contemplative backdrop for Pyles’ creation. When the creek’s waters overflow its banks and the sculpture’s post is enveloped in rushing torrents, the colossal salmon appears to be struggling upstream to spawn. Jones Yeltatzie would be pleased.

"Yeltatzie Salmon" - Terry Pyle's sculpture on Ketchikan Creek. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

"Yeltatzie Salmon" - Terry Pyle's sculpture on Ketchikan Creek. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

As a sidebar to this story I have to mention that I did some snorkeling at Mountain Point in Ketchikan. Long ago I trained with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) when I took up scuba-diving in the waters of Southern California. I found the waters of Ketchikan not much colder than deep water diving in California, and with a full body, thick neoprene wetsuit I was more than comfortable. When snorkeling I saw a number of sea creatures that were new to me, like Alaska’s giant Sunflower Sea Stars, and nearby a pod of Humpback Whales were breaching while American Bald eagles flew overhead.

Snorkeling in Ketchikan drove home two points for me. First, diving in Alaska’s waters was magical; few undertakings could so quickly disabuse big city dwellers of their being the “rulers” of nature, nor affirm the spiritual beauty of Mother Earth.

To be enchanted by nature is the real key to understanding the indigenous art of Alaska, and the experience made it clear why the indigenous people of the region have an unalterable reverence for the natural world.

The appreciation for indigenous art coming from non-Native people in Alaska is impressive, it might be newly found, but it is nevertheless firmly established and growing. I must juxtapose this phenomenon to a very different story that unfolded in Los Angeles in April of 2010, regarding the building of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes cultural center, a museum in downtown L.A. dedicated to Mexican-American heritage.

When construction for the museum began in 2010, the 19th century graveyard of nearby La Placita Church was discovered and the remains of 118 individuals were removed. More desecration than removal, torsos had their limbs and skulls torn away and the remains were placed in bags and buckets for storage at the L.A. County Museum of Natural History. LA Plaza administrators said they had been informed that the old cemetery had closed and moved in 1844, and that no indigenous people were buried there… until indigenous activists produced burial records proving that some two-thirds of the nearly 700 people buried at the cemetery were Gabrieleño-Tongva.

Furthermore, the Gabrieleño-Tongva pointed out that the area under excavation was Yangna, their largest village when the Spanish arrived in 1769. In other words, it was a sacred site for the tribe and a significant archeological find for the scientific community. The California State Native American Heritage Commission asked that excavations for LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes be stopped, and dozens of indigenous peoples held protests to that effect.

On January 13, 2011, indigenous people held a vigil at the construction site, hanging offerings of sacred sage to their ancestors on the chain-link fence around the cemetery. It was all to no avail. Gloria Molina, a Democratic Party politician and then L.A. County supervisor and brainchild behind the museum, did not want any negative publicity to stop the April 9, 2011 grand opening of the museum. When that official opening party occurred, dozens of indigenous people protested outside.

Finally, in April of 2012, the remains of the indigenous dead were returned to the graves from which they were robbed; an ornamental granite plaque notes their presence. The historic cemetery is now located on museum property in what LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes calls a “respectful memorial garden.” The indigenous people of Juneau have the Sealaska Heritage museum, and the City of Los Angeles begrudgingly gives the Gabrieleño-Tongva a granite plaque. So much for forward-thinking “liberal” L.A. and its “enlightened” cultural institutions.

In the Tlingit, I found a people ablaze with creativity and artistic spirit, they understand art as a means to connect with a respected past and to assure the continuation of a beloved culture well into the future. Tlingit art does not exist to shock or alienate, but to uplift, stimulate historic memories, educate, and unify the people; to the Tlingit these aspects of art go hand in hand with an appreciation of craft and beauty.

Such integral facets of art have been altogether rejected by postmodernism. The result being a contemporary art largely reduced to vapid kitsch without elegance, refinement, meaning, or even a tenuous connection to the wider society. The very idea of “craft” has flown out the window. Postmodern artists wear their alienation from the people as a badge of honor. Art has gone belly up. Its worth is defined only by its exorbitant price tag.

An “appropriated” image or a video of someone in the act of vomiting is as good as the ancient Greek sculpture of Laocoön or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes – or so we have been told. How refreshing and invigorating it was not to encounter such nonsense in the wilds of Alaska. By viewing the indigenous art to be found there, artists living in the postmodern blight of the big city might rediscover the real power of art, and what it means to once again, consciously engage with people, community, and society.

A view near Ketchikan. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

A view near Ketchikan. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Rigoberta Menchú, Gilberto Sánchez, & Ana Gatica

A recent photograph of 30-year old artist, Gilberto Abundiz Sanchez. Photo courtesy of the Sanchez family.

A recent photograph of 30-year old artist, Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez, courtesy of the Sánchez family.

This article is about the barbarous assassination of a young Mexican artist, Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez. Why would unidentified armed men take an artist from his home and murder him? Considering the artist was just one of over 50 victims killed in one year in a single region, why are the authorities unable – or unwilling – to stop the killers? This is the reality of today’s Mexico, the subject of this piece. But this essay is also about much broader, international issues, human solidarity, and the democratic spirit.

Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez was a 30-year old artist attending the Popular Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo. Located in Michoacán, Mexico, the University is the oldest institution of higher education in the Americas.

Gilberto Sanchez and two other young death squad victims. May 21, 2015.

Gilberto Sanchez and two other young death squad victims. May 21, 2015. Photo/EFE

By all accounts Sánchez was dedicated to art, he was a printmaker and painter. He was last seen watering the plants at his mother’s home when he was kidnapped on March 30, 2015. The remains of Sánchez were found on May 21, 2015 in Chilapa, Guerrero. He and two other young victims had been killed, dismembered, wrapped in blankets, and dumped along a roadside. The corpse was identified as Sánchez because of its unique tattoo.

The staff, students, and authorities of the University released a statement to express their “grief, anger, and outrage at the brutal murder of the student of the Bachelor of Visual Arts.” The collective statement describes Sánchez as a “peaceful, enthusiastic, and creative young man who actively participated in outreach activities that the Graphic Arts Department organized.”

The University communique also posed some very serious questions; “What happens in a country that allows the murder of its young students?” “Why do they fear the intelligence and creativity of young people, who represent the future of Mexico?” “Why has the whole society become a hostage to terror?”

The statement closed with these defiant words. “We are not willing to continue to act as if nothing happened in this country, that the death of Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez was natural and not the result of an undeclared war which has been unleashed against students, workers, peasants, and thinking people not aligned to power.”

The University statement is significant for two important reasons. It comes from the University staff, which includes academic as well as administrative faculty; it was also a collective statement issued in the name of the student body. More importantly, the bulletin expresses what millions of Mexicans are currently thinking about the criminal clique that rules their country.

Which brings us to the self-made controversy swirling around Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the indigenous Quiché woman, Guatemalan Human Rights activist, and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner. If anyone in the U.S. remembers Rigoberta Menchú Tum, it is as a heroic and altruistic “native rights” activist. After surviving the depredations of death squads in her homeland and the state murder of her family, after suffering insults and verbal muggings from right-wing critics aplenty, Menchú has managed to besmirch and defile her own legacy by collaborating with the authoritarian government of Mexico.

I once respected Rigoberta Menchú… that is no longer the case. The reasons for my bitter disappointment with Menchú are headline news in Mexico, but the calamity she has set off in Mexico has not been covered in the U.S. press. As a result I feel obligated to break this cheerless story to my fellow North Americans.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, presents Rigoberta Menchú Tum with her accreditation as an official election observer for Mexico's elections. Photo/INE Mexico.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, presents Rigoberta Menchú Tum with her accreditation as an official election observer for Mexico's elections. Photo/INE Mexico.

On May 26, 2015 Rigoberta Menchú was accredited by Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE), as an official electoral observer for the country’s June 7, 2015 midterm federal and state elections.

The INE paid Menchú $10,000 U.S. dollars to “promote voting and democracy” during her five-day stay in Mexico. According to information published in the Mexican press, Menchú charged $40,000 dollars for her visit, the balance being paid by private foundations. Here I must add, if Menchú has been paid by the Mexican government to lecture the people on democracy, and to be an election observer, can she really be seen as impartial?

Specifically, the INE is sending Menchú to the conflict ridden state of Guerrero to drum up support for the sham elections, but why Guerrero? Because that region is home to the Ayotzinapa teachers’ training college that had 43 of its students kidnapped by police and their drug gang accomplices. Ayotzinapa has become the political lightning rod of the nation, a democratic prairie fire has sprung from the tragedy, and President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) hopes to stamp it out.

It should be remembered that when the police of Guerrero seized the 43 Ayotzinapa students on Sept. 26, 2014, they turned them over to the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) drug gang to be murdered. There is no clearer evidence of the seamless relationship that exists between vast sectors of the Mexican government and powerful drug syndicates.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, presented Menchú with her accreditation at a photo-op press conference held at the INE headquarters. Córdova said Menchú was “a woman recognized internationally for her relentless struggle for the defense of the rights of indigenous peoples and for her convictions concerning peace.” It was a stunning bit of propaganda since just days earlier the Indigenous Council of Guanajuato filed a complaint against Córdova with Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights. During a phone conversation between the president of the INE and the group’s executive secretary, Córdova made racist jokes that ridiculed the way indigenous people speak.

Does Menchú not see that publicly accepting accreditation and money from Lorenzo Córdova legitimizes his image? If she was unaware of the controversy surrounding Córdova, then maybe she is not cognizant of other Mexican government intrigues. I suppose calling her naive is the best defense that can be offered, but callowness is not an attribute an election observer should possess.

Córdova’s phone call was surreptitiously recorded and released on Spanish language social media, where it has circulated ever since. Because of this Córdova “apologized” for his “unfortunate and disrespectful” jokes, but the INE asked the Attorney General’s Office to mount an investigation into who secretly recorded the conversation and made it public.

The former Attorney General, Jesús Murillo Karam (affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was widely criticized for attempting to cover-up the truth regarding the Ayotzinapa 43 kidnapping. He infuriated millions when at a press conference he was questioned regarding the 43 missing students, and responded with “that’s enough, I’m tired” before walking away from the press. The pro-Democracy movement then used Karam’s words #YaMeCanse (I am tired) in a social media campaign to show their contempt for government violence and impunity. Karam resigned in Feb. 2015, but the new Attorney General, Arely Gómez González (also affiliated to the PRI), will most likely lack the energy to tackle the Ayotzi 43 case, but I think she will show great zeal in exposing and prosecuting those who recorded Lorenzo Córdova’s racist phone conversation!

Video screenshot of 27-year old Ana Gatica challenging Menchú at a May 29, 2015 government organized forum.

Video screenshot of 27-year old Ana Gatica challenging Menchú at a May 29, 2015 government organized forum.

But back to Menchú and her disingenuous but well paid “This is what democracy looks like” side show. On May 29, 2015, at a large public gathering organized by the INE at the International Center in Acapulco, Guerrero, Menchú delivered a lecture titled Democracy and the Culture of Peace, a talk that many across Mexico found offensive and insulting.

Broad sectors of the population in Mexico are frustrated by narco-politica (narco-politics); millions believe their votes have no power to effect change. They believe, for good reason, that oligarchs and drug lords have an absolute grip on power, nullifying the democratic process. They believe there is no official mechanism that can be used to implement the people’s political will.

Furthermore, the movement for democracy that sprang up around Ayotzinapa has called for a boycott of the elections; it is a strategy that presses for the abolishment of Narco-regime governance and an end to kidnapping and murder by the state. The demand is that the 43 be returned, and if that is not possible, all of the conspirators who kidnapped and murdered them be brought to justice. Who is Rigoberta Menchú to tell the Mexican people that their assessment of the situation is incorrect?

During her lecture Menchú told the parents of the missing 43 Ayotzinapa students; “I would urge the families to try to explain the reason” for their children’s “actions” prior to being kidnapped (as if the students shared blame for being taken hostage). Menchú told the parents to do so “without hiding the truth, because the truth dignifies us all,” a statement that implied the parents of the 43 missing students had lied in their campaign to pressure the government.

Menchú went on to say that “the vote is a personal decision,” and that an election “is an opportunity to renew authorities.” She asked the parents of the 43 Ayotzinapa students to never forget their children (as if they would!), and to go out and vote, because “Gentlemen vote, and that is my message.”

The tables are turned. Ana Gatica, an indigenous Nahua from Guerrero, lectures Menchú on the meaning of democracy. Photographer unknown.

The tables are turned. Ana Gatica, an indigenous Nahua from Guerrero, lectures Menchú on the meaning of democracy. Photographer unknown.

At the close of her address, Menchú asked for a moment of silence for the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students. After the awkward silence there was a question and answer period, and a 27-year old woman, Ana Gatica, took the stage to deliver what turned out to be a rather fiery public rebuke; Ms. Gatica is an indigenous Nahua from Guerrero.

Shaking with emotion and choking back her tears, Ms. Gatica addressed the honored guest as Hermana Menchú (Sister Menchú), “I do not know how you can ask us to make a vow to vote,” she said, when disappearances and murders of civilians go unpunished. Ms. Gatica pointed out that 50 young people living in the state of Guerrero have been killed between October 26, 2012 and May 30, 2015. The first to disappear “was the daughter of a cousin, Gabriela Itzel Ortiz Vazquez, 15, the last to be killed was Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez.” Gatica began to cry when she spoke of Sánchez, her friend and fellow graphic artist.

Ana Gatica pointedly stated: “Ms. Menchú, the indignation and anger cannot be finished, and I know you understand. One more thing, we cannot keep asking for a minute of silence for the missing, because asking for a minute of silence for each of the disappeared – and for everyone murdered in our country, in our state, means that we will remain silent forever.”

The comments of the brave and courageous Ana Gatica were captured in several Spanish language videos of the Democracia y cultura de la paz conference. Ms. Gatica received a stirring round of applause for confronting Menchú, it was no doubt more enthusiastic and heartfelt than the polite clapping given to Menchú at the close of her speech.

The day after Rigoberta Menchú’s speech, Felipe de la Cruz, a spokesman for the parents of the missing 43 Ayotzinapa students, deplored the conduct of Menchú. He said that she “fell into the INE game of promoting the elections,” and that she “does not know how they have governed us in Mexico for many years.” De la Cruz had some words of advice for Menchú, “If you want the truth, ask those who are paying you to making your comments.”

In 1982 Rigoberta Menchú rose to international fame with the release of her book I, Rigoberta Menchú. It told the story of the impoverished Quiché people living under the boot of Guatemala’s oligarchical landlords and their armed goons. Menchú’s family became involved in the land reform movement, and so became targets of the regime. Her father Vicente was arrested and tortured, her brother was executed by government soldiers, her mother was arrested, raped, and killed by government troops, and ultimately her father was burned to death in the 1980 Spanish Embassy Massacre. In 1981 Rigoberta Menchú fled Guatemala for Mexico and then France.

While in France Menchú met Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, who not only convinced Menchú to write her memoirs, but became the ghostwriter for the book. At the time I found the autobiography to be totally convincing, the tome fed the international solidarity movement that was determined to end the butchery in Central America. For the events detailed in her book, Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum - Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Oil on canvas. Detail.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum - Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Oil on canvas.

Doubts about Menchú finally began to rise in 1999 when anthropologist David Stoll published Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, a book that pointed out discrepancies and inaccuracies in Menchú’s autobiography. The left-wing – myself included – dismissed Stoll’s book, but Menchú’s recent skullduggery forces a reconsideration.

In 2009 I attended Guayasamín: Rage & Redemption, an exhibit at the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in Long Beach, California. It was a retrospective of artworks by the Ecuadoran master painter, Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Prominently displayed was the artist’s oil on canvas portrait of Rigoberta Menchú. Guayasamín, a social realist artist and a man of the left, would no doubt be outraged over the shameful antics of Menchú.

It should go without saying that I no longer support Rigoberta Menchú, who has become but a faded image of her former self. No, I stand with Ana Gatica, the spirited and outspoken indigenous Nahua from Guerrero who knows how to stand for the people’s rights.


 The marriage of Mark Vallen and Jeannine Thorpe, May 1st, 2012.

The marriage of Mark Vallen and Jeannine Thorpe, May 1st, 2012.

On May 1st, 2012, Mark Vallen and Jeannine Thorpe were wed at Jalama Beach, located on the remote shoreline of California’s Central Coast, an hour’s drive north of Santa Barbara. The marriage ceremony took place at ocean’s edge near the ancient Chumash village of Shilimaqshtush (no translation), which was once located at the mouth of Jalama Creek.

The stream was named after a larger Chumash village known as Xalam, or “bundle”, which long ago stood eight miles inland from the sea. The wedding ceremony was officiated over by a Shaman trained in the medicine ways of the Chumash people, witnessed by an Opera Singer, and attended by a wedding party of several dozen seagulls and pelicans.

Review: Four Los Angeles Exhibits

I started 2012 by taking in four exhibits in the Los Angeles area; Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation and The Colt Revolver in the American West at the Autry National Center, as well as Places of Validation, Art & Progression and The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by color, shaped by Cultures at the California African American Museum.

What unites these seemingly unrelated exhibits are the deep insights they provide into the American experience. This review is to encourage those in the Southern California region to see the shows for themselves if possible, and barring that, to do further research on the artists mentioned.

Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation

Starting with the Autry National Center, the Art Along the Hyphen exhibit (which ended Jan. 8, 2012), presented the work of six Mexican-American artists who created art in Los Angeles in the post-WWII era of the 1950s and early 1960s; Alberto Valdés, Domingo Ulloa, Roberto Chavez, Dora de Larios, Eduardo Carrillo, and Hernando G. Villa. That these artists are still unknown, even to aficionados of Chicano art, is a testament to the influence of art establishment gatekeepers. It was not just elite art world racism that kept these and other Mexican-American artists out of the museum and gallery systems, it was also the totalitarian supremacy of abstract expressionism that held them in check. The artists in the Art Along the Hyphen show were committed to narrative figurative realism, and that put them squarely at odds with an art establishment obsessed with abstraction.

"Braceros" - Domingo Ulloa, 1960. Oil on masonite. Image courtesy of the Autry.

"Braceros" - Domingo Ulloa, 1960. Oil on masonite. Image courtesy of the Autry.

The paintings and prints of Domingo Ulloa (1919-1997) were the most politically charged in the Autry exhibit.

The artist was unquestionably influenced by the 1930s school of Mexican Muralism and social realism; Ulloa in fact studied at the Antigua Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City, the same art academy attended by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Born in Pomona, California, Ulloa was the son of migrant workers, and after serving in World War II he came under the influence of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP – Popular Graphic Arts Workshop), the famous Mexican political print collective. Every bit as didactic and radical as his contemporaries in the TGP, Ulloa’s art focused on the social ills of American society; racism and social inequality, police brutality and imperialist war.

In 1963 Norman Rockwell painted a canvas he titled, The Problem We All Live With. It was a depiction of a 6-year-old African-American girl named Ruby Bridges being escorted through a racist mob by U.S. Federal marshals to the just desegregated William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The real life incident occurred on Nov. 15, 1960, when a large crowd of white racists gathered in front of the school to protest against integration. Armed Federal marshals had to guard the tiny black girl against the angry throng as it chanted “Two, Four, Six, Eight, we don’t want to integrate!” Rockwell’s painting appeared as a double page spread in Look Magazine in 1964, it was a controversial image that would capture the attention of Americans, but Domingo Ulloa had painted a similar canvas six years prior to Rockwell’s original painting.

"Racism/Incident at Little Rock" - Domingo Ulloa, 1957. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Autry.

"Racism/Incident at Little Rock" - Domingo Ulloa, 1957. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Autry.

In 1957 Ulloa painted Racism/Incident at Little Rock, which was based upon real life events that took place that same year in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1957 a federal court ordered the State of Arkansas to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which outlawed racial segregation in America’s public schools. Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas and a Dixiecrat (a right-wing racist Southern Democrat) resisted the court decision by calling in Arkansas National Guard soldiers to prevent African-American students from entering “white” schools. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower pressured Faubus to uphold federal law and use the Guard to protect black students, but Faubus instead withdrew the troops entirely, leaving black students exposed to attacks by white racist lynch mobs.

When nine black students attempted to enter Little Rock High School on September 23, 1957, thousands of enraged whites assaulted them with stones and fisticuffs. This clip from the 1986 PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize details the incident. At 7.55 minutes into the video you will see footage that I viewed on national television in 1957 at the tender young age of four; the indelible imagery changed my life forever. Although only a four-year-old, I wanted to rush to the victim’s defense. Ulloa attempted to capture all the horror of that ugly affair on his canvas.

Ulloa’s painting is dramatically different from Rockwell’s, and it goes without saying that Ulloa’s vision did not appear in Look Magazine. In Racism/Incident at Little Rock there are no government agents deployed to rescue black school children, there are only six youthful black students surrounded by a howling pack of phantasmagorical monsters. The adolescent African-Americans in the picture huddle together, the oldest of them looking stoic; they have no one but themselves to rely upon. Ulloa’s canvas was inspired by The Masses, a 1935 lithograph by José Clemente Orozco; one could say that Ulloa perhaps borrowed a bit too much from Orozco, or he was simply paying homage to the master. Ulloa’s paintings at the Autry showed that he had not entirely escaped the orbit of the Mexican Muralists; his heavily textured brushstrokes and color palette bearing a striking similarity to that of Siqueiros.

"Don Pela Gallos" - Alberto Valdes, 1980. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Autry.

"Don Pela Gallos" - Alberto Valdes, 1980. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Autry.

The works of Alberto Valdés (1918-1998) caught my eye. His delicate semi-abstract paintings were filled with vivid color and Pre-Columbian iconography; dreamlike apparitions, mythic creatures, indigenous warriors, and fantastic landscapes.

A small portrait of a fierce imaginary Aztec warrior held me spellbound; painted in muted hues of red and yellow, the face filled the entire diminutive picture plane.

Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) was an obvious inspiration to Valdés. A handful of Valdés’ paintings achieved a mystical quality where reality melted into intricate webs of translucent primary colors. However, I think Valdés for the most part agreed with Tamayo that a “non-descriptive realism” would counter the “bourgeois” escapism of abstraction. The enigmatic Don Pela Gallos is indicative of Valdés’ opulently painted visions.

The Colt Revolver in the American West

While at the Autry to see Art Along the Hyphen, I decided to visit the museum’s newly opened Greg Martin Colt Gallery, were the exhibit The Colt Revolver in the American West can be found; I knew a rare poster by artist George Catlin (1796-1872) was part of the exhibit. Starting in 1830 Catlin was the first American artist to travel beyond the Missouri River to visit and document indigenous people; over a six-year period he ended up painting more than 325 portraits of individuals from eighteen tribes, some of which had never seen a white man before.

Colt Single Action Army revolver. This lavishly engraved .45 cal pistol belonged to Captain Manuel Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers in 1929. Gonzaullas was the first Latino to become a high ranking officer in the Texas Rangers. First introduced in 1873, the Colt 45 became known as "the handgun that won the West." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Colt Single Action Army revolver. This engraved .45 cal pistol belonged to Captain Manuel Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers in 1929. Gonzaullas was the first Latino to become a high ranking officer in the Texas Rangers. First introduced in 1873, the Colt 45 became known as "the handgun that won the West." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 2004 the Autry hosted an unforgettable exhibition titled George Catlin And His Indian Gallery that showcased 120 paintings by the artist. The exhibit was originally organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which houses the greater part of Catlin’s works in its permanent collection. Ever since first learning of Catlin when I was a teenager, I have maintained a keen interest in his works, and so was eager to see his poster in the Colt exhibit.

Detail of historic poster designed by George Catlin for Colt firearms. Circa 1851. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of historic poster designed by George Catlin for Colt firearms. Circa 1851. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Samuel Colt constructed the very first rotating cylinder fed handgun in 1831 at the age of sixteen, a prototype of which is on display in the Autry exhibit. He patented his invention in 1835, and his innovative revolver grew increasingly popular with hunters, frontiersmen, and settlers. Around 1851 Samuel Colt commissioned Catlin to do a series of paintings showing the artist using Colt rifles and pistols during his travels. Catlin’s paintings were reproduced as lithographs, a common practice at the time, and distributed to promote the Colt line of firearms. A total of six different lithographic posters were produced, but only Catlin the Artist Shooting Buffalo with Colt’s Revolving Pistol, is on display at the Autry. Apparently Catlin was one of the very first American artists to promote a commercial product.

While the Autry asserts Catlin’s poster depicts the artist firing a “Dragoon revolver”, I think otherwise. The Colt Dragoon was first produced in 1848, years after Catlin made his 1830-1836 excursions through territory inhabited by the original Americans. The handgun Catlin depicted himself using in the poster looks very much like the model No. 5 Colt “Paterson” Revolver manufactured by Samuel Colt in Paterson, N.J. in the year 1836, a year that fits the time frame of Catlin’s actual travels. In 2011 a rare 1836 Colt “Paterson” sold at auction for $977,500, a world record price for a single historic firearm sold at auction.

Places of Validation, Art & Progression

The California African American Museum (CAAM) offers Places of Validation, Art & Progression, an exhibit tracing the development of artistic expression in the Los Angeles African-American community from 1940 to 1980. On view until Feb. 26, 2012, this large and somewhat unwieldy exhibit covers an important period for L.A. and the United States. The post-war struggle to achieve full human and civil rights for African-Americans, and the social engagement in the arts that accompanied that effort, is a central focus for much of the work in the exhibit.

Concomitant with political shifts in the U.S., Black artists in the 1960s began to explore Africa as an aesthetic wellspring, in addition to taking on a critical examination of Black life and history in America. A good portion of the art on display is in the figurative realist tradition, but the CAAM exhibit also demonstrates how Black artists in the avant-garde used conceptual and installation art in a decidedly political way; here, Betye Saar’s Sambo’s Banjo comes to mind.

The work is a mixed-media assemblage composed of a banjo carrying case displayed to stand open, the outside of the case painted with a contemptibly stereotyped image of a Black man with huge bulging eyes and enormous blood red lips. An examination of the case interior reveals that in the area where the circular body of the banjo would rest, a diminutive “Little Black Sambo” toy figure dressed in red, white, and blue hangs from a tiny noose. Above, in the thin part of the case were the banjo’s fretted neck would be situated, a small black metal skeleton is arranged next to a historic black and white photograph of an actual lynching. A piece of wood carved and painted to look like a large slice of watermelon sits in front of the tableau formed by the banjo case. Altogether, Saar’s assemblage forms a chilling picture of American racism.

"My Miss America" Ernie Barnes. Oil on canvas. 49 x 37 inches. 1970.

"My Miss America" Ernie Barnes. Oil on canvas. 49 x 37 inches. 1970.

The exhibit contains three works by Charles White (1918-1979), an artist whose works exerted a powerful influence upon me in the early 1970’s.

Three works by White are on display, a small linoleum cut and a larger and quite extraordinary etching, the triad completed by a sizeable oil painting titled Freedom Now. These three works alone give enough reason to visit Places of Validation, but the CAAM exhibit offers many other treasures.

One of my favorite works in the exhibit is by Ernie Barnes (1938-2009), who was born in North Carolina during the brutal years of White supremacy.

In 1956 the eighteen-year old Barnes visited the North Carolina Museum of Art while on a field trip; when he inquired of a docent where he might find the museum’s collection of works by Black artists, he was told “Your people don’t express themselves that way.” Barnes would develop into one of America’s premier Black artists and in 1978 would return to the same museum for a successful solo exhibition of his art.

On display at the CAAM is My Miss America, Barnes’ heroic depiction of Black womanhood. Painted in 1970, the canvas portrays a woman made rough by years of drudgery and sacrifice; dressed in a plain red cotton dress she hauls two heavy brown bags with her coarse hands. It is evident the working woman is part of America’s permanent underclass, yet, she exudes the dignity and nobility that evades those thought to be “above” her. The title Barnes gave to his canvas was not based on the notion of woman as trophy, rather, it is an affirmation of the strength, integrity, and leadership of women. If there is a “Miss America”, Barnes showed us where she is to be found.

The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by color, shaped by Cultures

In another wing of the CAAM one can see the works of Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957). It brings together the artist’s paintings, lithographs, drawings, sketches, and illustrations for books and magazines portraying people of African heritage in the United States, Haiti, and Cuba; but the exhibit also includes portraits the artist made of people while traveling through North, East, and West African countries. Gathered under the thematic banner of  The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by color, shaped by Cultures, the exhibit’s primary focus are the works Covarrubias produced in the mid-1920s as an observer of the Harlem Renaissance.

"Rumba" Miguel Covarrubias. Lithograph. 1942. This, and other superlative lithographs by the artist are on view at the CAAM exhibit.

"Rumba" Miguel Covarrubias. Lithograph. 1942. This, and other superlative lithographs by the artist are on view at the CAAM exhibit.

With a grant from the Mexican government, the 19-year old Covarrubias traveled to New York City in 1924 where he  became immersed in African-American culture. He met and befriended Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other notables from the literary scene, and regularly frequented Harlem’s many Jazz clubs. He produced an endless stream of drawings and other artworks that depicted African-Americans in church, on the street, and going about their everyday lives; to my mind few non-African-American artists up until Covarrubias had ever been given to such a positive examination of Black Americans. By 1927 a number of these works were published in book form under the title of, Negro Drawings, and more than a few of these original works are included in the CAAM exhibit.

A remarkable painter, printmaker, curator, writer, theatrical set and costume designer, anthropologist, and radical humanist, Covarrubias is mostly known in the U.S. as an illustrator and caricaturist whose celebrity caricatures graced the covers and inside pages of publications like Vanity Fair, Fortune, and The New Yorker in the 1920s and 1930s. But when it came to his depictions of African-Americans, he said the following: “I don’t consider my drawings caricatures. A caricature is the exaggerated character of an individual for satirical purpose. These drawings are more from a serious point of view.”

"Black Woman with Blue Dress" Miguel Covarrubias. Oil on masonite. 1926. Collection of the Library of Congress.

"Black Woman with Blue Dress" Miguel Covarrubias. Oil on masonite. 1926. Collection of the Library of Congress.

One especially striking painting in the exhibit is Covarrubias’ Black Woman with Blue Dress, an oil on masonite study of a fashionable young woman. One must assume she was a denizen of one of the Jazz clubs the artist haunted, her cool gaze and “Flapper” attire the mark of an urban sophisticate.

The reproduction of the painting shown here does not begin to do the original justice; Covarrubias made full use of the transparent characteristics of oil paint, his vibrant portrait looking ever so much like a backlit panel of stained glass. Next to this painting, another similarly sized and composed oil portrait stood out conspicuously, a masterful interpretation of a young woman in a deep red dress.

The portrait of the Black woman in the red dress continues to enthrall me, though I did not get the title or date of the painting. The woman wearing a bobbed Flapper hairdo so angular it seemed architectural, was portrayed in silhouette against a background the color of ripe lemons. Thrown into shadow and her beautiful ebony skin painted in the darkest of hues, her features appear hidden, until a closer look reveals that her eyes are staring back at you. Covarrubias’ close-up portraits of North African women are similarly eye-catching and arresting studies that will have me visiting the exhibition a second time before its closing.

I cannot speak highly enough of  The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias, it is one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen in Los Angeles, if only for the fact that the artist’s fine art prints and oil paintings are so little known in the United States. Regrettably the museum offers no printed catalog of this important show, not even an informative pamphlet. The superb exhibition runs until Feb. 26, 2012.