Auctions: Top of the totem pole

All tribes employed images of birds, whales and seals, the former the manifestations of totemic spirits.

September 28, 2006 14:26
2 minute read.
Auctions: Top of the totem pole

totem 88. (photo credit: )


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Passing through Vancouver on a number of occasions, I several times had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful ethnological museum of Indian art from the northwest, which is perched on a verdant hillside high above the city. Most of the boldly colored artifacts and carved totems in it are from the culture of the local Haida and Kwakuitl peoples. I discovered that each indigenous tribe of the northwest had its own language and visual culture, but all employed images of birds, whales and seals, the former the manifestations of totemic spirits, the mammals revered as a major source of food. On October 5, Sotheby's New York will offer the finest known field collection of Northwest Native material in private hands: The Dundas Collection of Northwest Coast American Indian Art. Of unparalleled artistic and historic value, the collection has survived in family hands since it was originally purchased by the visiting Reverend Robert J. Dundas of Scotland in October of 1863. Containing masterpieces of Tsimshian art in a variety of categories, many of the 80 objects in the collection are among the most impressive and best known of Northwest Coast artifacts. A Tsimshian Portrait Mask, in particular, transcends its genre to become an extraordinary world-class work of art. The auction, which is Sotheby's first single-owner sale of American Indian Art to take place in almost a decade, is expected to bring $2.4m./$3.4m. The Tsimshians, an artistic and warrior people living north of the British Columbian peoples on the border of Alaska, had two forms of crafts. The women worked principally in weaving and basketry, and their style was abstract and nonrepresentational. The men worked in stone, wood and painted wood, and their style ranged from representational to abstract. Their abstract art was highly symbolic, elaborately conventionalized, and full of meaning. The concepts of heredity status, wealth, the occurrences of potlatches and secret society performances provided ample opportunity for skill in the making of decorated articles (carved and painted rattles, drums, headdresses, masks, ornamented chests, carved and painted columns, paintings, and totempoles). Personal possessions were also highly valued (carved house posts, masks, charms, spoons and crests chests, clothing, blankets, serving dishes, fishhooks and clubs and canoes). The supernatural world played a great part from childhood to death. As a result, myths, legends and their actors were the subjects of their art. The need to develop tangible means of preserving ancestors' experiences was a primary factor in the development of the art of painting, engraving and sculpture. Mythological characters were transformed into animals, people, birds or inanimate objects, sometimes within the action of a single tale. Pigments were ground in stone mortars and mixed with salmon eggs. The resulting paint had a rich heavy texture, good coverage and a slight gloss. Amazingly, it was as durable as commercial paints. The principal colors were red, black, yellow and greenblue (but remember that Renaissance paintings employed egg-tempera too). Dancing and music were inseparable parts of the Tsimshian dramatic scene, accomplished as much throughout the medium of symbolic dancing as through acting. The dramatic impact of the performance was heightened by the use of costumes and masks, of painted screens and of mechanical devices such as dancing heads and spouting whales. The drum was the primary instrument played.

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