Currently on display at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle’s International District is “Cultural Confluence: Urban People of Asian and Native American Heritages” which offers a unique look into a world seldom explored by the mainstream. For these artists of Asian and Native American backgrounds, the balance of preserving cultural traditions while forging ahead with contemporary ideas gives an interesting look into what happens when the lines are blurred between such diverse cultural identities
The past hardship endured by Northwest American Indian communities as a result of tribal relocation is still felt today, as a majority of Native Americans live away from their tribal reservations and ancestral homes. It was in an urban setting that they often intermarried with Asian immigrants, who themselves were drawn to urban centers by the economic opportunities not available to them in their home countries. In this diverse environment, a new generation was born. “Cultural Confluence” shows us what these artists have to say about their heritage, culture and individual experience through a mix of contemporary art, new media and storytelling.
When entering the exhibit, the first piece on display is “Dream Catchers” by Lawney Reyes. Using steel, glass and beads, Reyes reinterprets the traditional Native American dreamcatcher with a sleek, contemporary look. His long career as an interior designer reveals itself in this piece with sharp angles of stainless steel threads inside each circle of glass. Of Sing-Aikst and Filipino decent, the artist spent his early childhood at the Colville Indian Reservation in central Washington where he showed an early talent for art. Though later placed in the boarding school system, as was common for the youth of Native communities, Lawney managed to maintain the Indian identity so apparent in his work.
Part of an installation in this exhibit, the storytelling of Gene Tagaban leaves a strong impression on the viewer who will immediately feel the power of this communicative art form. Tagaban, of Cherokee, Tlingit and Filipino heritage, imparts messages of personal morality, the human relationship with nature, and the importance of lineage and family. Through song, dance, and the use of traditional instruments, masks and regalia, Tagaban imparts valuable wisdom and important values through this entertaining and visually enticing medium.
A clearly modern interpretation of traditional themes is seen in “Indipino Shoes” and “Converse” by Sondra Segundo, of Haida and Katzie descent. She imbues modern-day footwear with beautiful Haida designs. Segundo was greatly influenced by her grandparents who taught her of her ancestral heritage through traditional songs, food, art and language. By combining traditional and contemporary elements in her work, Segundo is able to impart the feeling of what it is to be both an urban dweller in modern society and someone who respects and values the culture of her ancestors.
Another example of this blend is shown the work of Louie L. Gong who says, “My artwork is a reflection of who I am as a person. Being Asian, Native and White is foundational to my being, and they can’t be distilled from one another.” His skateboards, painted in a hybrid of styles, seem to speak of a certain pride in embracing all aspects of pursuing a deeply personal sense of racial identity.
Other points of interest in the exhibit include a film entitled “Island Roots,” in which filmmakers Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers explore the historical background of Native and immigrant communities on Bainbridge Island. Filipino and Tlingit artist Samuella Samaniego does a beautiful job capturing black and white images with her traditional print photography. Also of note is the work of Lillian Pitt, who uses typically Asian materials and techniques along with the aesthetic influence of her Native ancestors of the Columbia River Gorge.
The variety and rich cultural content woven through this exhibit makes “Cultural Confluence” a very worthwhile show for anyone with an interest in the Pacific Northwest, its people and its art.