This series is aimed at getting to know exceptional UBC staff and faculty who are doing anything but the typical day to day. Discover the stories of these UBC Vancouver and Okanagan individuals, who contribute to making UBC an inspiring place to be.
As an associate professor of anthropology, author of several books on Northwest Coast culture and art and Pacific Northwest curator for the Museum of Anthropology (MOA), Jennifer Kramer bridges many worlds.
Her focus for the last 14 years: ethnographic writing, teaching and gallery exhibitions that, for her,“try to feel true to self-representation” of sometimes unnamed native artists and yet are “aware and reflective of the histories, structural inequalities and contemporary politics” that underlie their works.
Her newest curated exhibition Layers of Influence: Unfolding Cloth Across Cultures is made up of 134 textiles, chosen with the emphasis on “big and impactful in order to fill the gallery”. At the MOA, the pieces aren’t treated as inanimate, voiceless ‘artifacts’ but rather as living ‘cultural belongings’ that with the support of Indigenous communities themselves, will speak to the visitor.
Drawn from the 6,000 textiles in MOA storage — glistening silk, durable mountain goat wool, bark cloth, feathers, gold thread embroidered on what seems like finely woven spider webs — the gathering presents cultures from Aotearoa-New Zealand, Africa, Asia, Japan, British Columbia and other distant homes. Some pieces whisper, others shout; all are memorable and humanly inclusive, which is what Kramer intended.
A: First Nations Northwest Coast art has become fine art sold in art galleries in Gastown and Granville [Street] and auctioned off at very high prices. On one hand, it’s wonderful because this artwork deserves to be recognized aesthetically, it deserves to be valued, especially because between 1884 and 1951 [First Nations] art production was actually against the law in Canada. It was illegal to make regalia for potlatches, to carve masks, to raise totem poles.
At MOA, we’re aware that we’re part of the process of adding value to First Nations’ art. That’s good; we’re bolstering its reputation and raising public awareness by displaying contemporary and historical First Nations art. However, we also must be aware that monetizing the artwork and calling it ‘art’ does not reflect its deeper Indigenous usages in ceremonies and potlatches.
First Nations artists often balance making a living by selling their artwork, with making regalia for use back home. Frequently, these artists work for free because they’re part of a community or family who is potlatching. They may gain local or global recognition but they must be careful about not ‘selling out’ cultural styles, beliefs, crest systems that are owned by specific families on the Northwest Coast. So we’re very conscious of that at the museum.
The fashion business is hugely irresponsible in how it appropriates Indigenous styles and imageries and can be to the point of stereotypes, leading to complete misrepresentation and misunderstanding.
A: We really try to blur the set categories of what should be shown in an art gallery and what should be shown in a museum of anthropology, because the categories are static and binary and don’t reflect real Indigenous peoples’ lives both now or a hundred years ago.
For example, the Western art world really values signatures, signed pieces. From First Nations Northwest Coast perspective however, artists are just ‘the hands of the family’ and it really isn’t that important who makes a mask or a button blanket. It wasn’t even considered artwork; it was functional, ceremonial regalia. Or the weaver who spent a year making a mountain-goat wool blanket isn’t [concerned] about signing her work. It’s about the honour of the person that’s going to wear and use that blanket, not who wove it.
It’s always a balance between getting the message out about the incredible skill and formal aesthetics of a certain type of Indigenous production, and balancing that appreciation without ending up on the spectrum where you get cultural appropriation, where non-native artists, fashion designers or big retail companies reference or even use specific Indigenous art or Northwest Coast form lines without permission and afterwards, ask ‘Why not?’
A: It’s very hard for non-native people to understand but really it’s a power inequality issue of who’s doing what. When ‘borrowing’ that native art form, someone else is losing economic income, losing cultural property but also being robbed of the wealth that represents that person, or family or community’s identity. So if you’re a Chilkat weaver and only your family can wear Chilkat and someone else who’s non-Native weaves a Chilkat blanket and puts it on the wrong person, it’s not only diluting of what you own, it’s diluting your identity and history.
The fashion business is hugely irresponsible in how it appropriates Indigenous styles and imageries and can be to the point of stereotypes, leading to complete misrepresentation and misunderstanding. For example, you don’t wear a Plains chief’s war bonnet to a rock concert. That’s complete disrespect. Some people would say ‘I just think it’s a beautiful thing and it’s elegant and it’s powerful and I’m just appreciating Indigenous culture.’
No, you’re not. You’re completely misrepresenting it because you don’t even respect where something comes from.
I consider the curation of exhibitions as artwork, actually. It’s one perspective of many perspectives.
Four months hence the Layers textiles will return to storage, ready for study and future outings. The gallery space will welcome the next exhibit, collected, organized and presented by MOA curators such as Jennifer Kramer and their equally busy, deliberately low-key colleagues. It’s what they do. They do it well.