Curating community: Indigenous arts show celebrates the process

Artist in Residence of Roldy Aguero Ablao sees how his cedar branch lei will look as a decoration in the gallery. In his day job, he is a curator at the Wing Luke museum, and often works with artists to explore the idea of reclaiming and transforming space. (Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang)

Up the narrow neon escalators passing through the core of the book spiral up to the eighth floor at the Seattle Central Library, toward an icy geometric exterior, a sign makes a nod to the Indigenous people who have lived in the Pacific Northwest long before White settlers came to this area.

“The Seattle Public Library would like to acknowledge that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people.” states a plaque on the wall.

Past this sign is the first installation of an art show titled Yəhaw̓. Bright glass podiums host pieces that range from traditional cedar weaving, beading and woodwork to landscapes and Coast Salish style paintings exploring themes of environment and place.

This gallery is just one tiny piece of a much larger project. Curators Tracy Rector (Seminole/Choctaw), Asia Tail (Cherokee Nation), and Satpreet Kahlon have brought together more than 200 artists and 20 partner locations spanning Seattle, Bellevue and Tacoma to create a show celebrating Indigenous artists. Shows and events will run for a full year and include hundreds of hours of programming.

“Yəhaw̓ is extremely different from any other biennial, triennial, art show that I have ever encountered because of its capacity building, mentorship and support,” said S Surface, program lead at King Street Station in Seattle.

The gallery and events at the library began in October and are the first iteration of the show. The project, with multiple gallery showings at the library and King Street Station, will run through fall of next year. The largest installation is coming up in Spring 2019 at King Street Station as its first community show in a newly renovated gallery space.

The show at the Seattle Central Library developed from a collaboration between the location and artists. For the past few years the library has had an annual social justice topic, and this year’s focuses on environmental justice. Project lead Davida Ingram explained it was very important to the library to provide that space for Indigenous folks to run the show.

The result is two open-faced rooms with different focuses. On the left, a gallery of art by Coast Salish women artists curated by Denise Emerson (Diné/Twana) will stay through the whole show. The right hand side will instead house a shifting exhibit added to and changed by artists in residence as they create art in real time each week.

The two sides of the gallery tell a larger story. In the Coast Salish artist exhibit in the background hangs “A Mother’s Garden” by Abigail Pierson (Cowlitz). In the foreground is a piece from the Native Kut artist residency. (Photo by Keelin Everly-Lang)

First was Native Kut, which includes artists Pah-tu Pitt and Sean Gallagher. They focused on printmaking and wood carving demos inspired by Indigenous water rights. Roldy Aguero Ablao used both materials from Guam and local cedar branches and bark to create woven pieces that bring together various identities. Fox Spears has one more day of residency left on Nov. 24. He is a print maker and focuses on patterns inspired by the Klamath River, where his Karuk ancestors lived since time immemorial, as well as the river systems in Washington and the Pacific Northwest.

The scale the project stands out, with 200 artists; even the largest international shows tend to have a maximum of around 150 artists and last for just a few months, according to this survey from 2013.

The scale of the project is impressive, but even more is the intention behind it.

“So much of western art is about competition, about who’s in or who’s out, somehow defining quality in this really abstract way where everyone pretends like it’s really objective.” Tail said. Instead, “it is actually often reflective of who has resources and who has time and who has connections.”

For Yəhaw̓, Rector explained the goal is “to essentially decolonize the practice of curation.”

This looks like an open call, where every artist who applied is featured, and a structure where each step of creating the show is a chance for all involved to gain new skills and opportunities.

“That idea came out of a deep respect for Indigenous community” Asia Tail said. The curators want “to have a show that would be reflective of who we were as a diverse body of people … to take an approach that embraced mentorship, embraced artist development throughout this process.”

Curators chose the name “Yəhaw̓” itself from a Coast Salish story from this area. It means “to go forward, to do it.” In the story, the word was a tool for different tribes who didn’t speak the same language to be able to work together. The curators posted a video of the story on a website for the show.

This project seeks to be a “collective portrait of Native America, including creatives of all ages and stages in their careers, from Urban and Reservation communities, working in contemporary and traditional materials, and in ways that may or may not be widely recognized as Native,” according to their website.

Indigenous identity can be complex, and this show creates space for a wide range of experience. One featured artist, Roldy Aguero Ablao, expressed his gratitude for that opportunity during his artist residency. He identifies most with his Indigenous Chamorro upbringing in Guam and is also Korean and Filipino. He has spent half his life in Seattle after moving here at age 18, and the process of connecting with his Indigenous identity is continual.


These red cedar bark scraps were leftovers from a weaving workshop at Evergreen College. Ablao explained that it brought together Indigenous weavers from all over the world who shared traditions and taught each other techniques. (Photos by Keelin Everly-Lang)

Once when learning about his traditional forms of weaving while living in Seattle, he had to import coconut palm leaves from Florida. He laughed while he explained that the leaves dry out so fast that he kept them in the bathtub and showered around them for days to keep them fresh.

In learning weaving techniques with materials local to Coast Salish traditions, he continues to ask questions: “How can you remain Indigenous when you’re not on the land of your ancestors? I’m here now, what does that mean?”

He remembers trying to apply for funding as an Indigenous artist in this area, and not fitting within the guidelines. “I remember trying to connect our histories, we were both colonized, we’re trying to find our relationship with places and lands” but also recognized that “there are other Indigenous artists who need that as well.”

Here in the Coast Salish region, Seattle is named after Duwamish and Suquamish Chief Si’Ahl, but much of the rest of Indigenous history is not readily visible. Evidence has been found of Indigenous communities living here for the last 10,000 years, and this knowledge, craftsmanship and cultural identity has stayed strong even through colonization and brutality.

“In this area, culture was outlawed, potlatches were outlawed, people were forced into boarding schools, in many ways people were forcibly severed from their families and their cultures, and here we see that that knowledge still remains,” Rector explained. The inclusivity and nuance of the show means it is an intergenerational view of native creatives in this area today. “There’s young people involved, all the way through elders, who may have never seen themselves as an artist before but have always wove baskets or done bead work.”

She explained that saying to someone “‘Yeah, you’re an artist’ also acknowledges not just the surviving aspect but the thriving aspect of Indigenous peoples.”

Having artists in residence means not only a chance to feature local artists, but also because it brings back the core message that “first and foremost we are still here as Indigenous people” as Rector said of the program.

In the static side of the gallery a vibrant green map is illuminated on the back wall. Look closer and you’ll see the outline of Coast Salish territory, including pinpoints of where each represented artist is from.

Curator Denise Emerson created the map, which engaged her memories of growing up in this area.

“As I worked on it its reinforced everything my mother taught me,” she said. “As we drove along the highway towards the reservation she would point to the woods and show me where Skokomish people lived and take me out to learn about the plants and about the land.”

A larger version of this map , created by curator Denise Emerson, hangs in the gallery at the Seattle Central Library.

Emerson explained that being urban and Native living in the city can be difficult, but that her parents made sure she stayed connected, both to the landscape of this area and to her history.

“My parents always told me that when you meet other Indigenous people, they will understand you like no one else understands you.” Emerson said. “They belong to you and you belong to them.” This has really been true for her in this curatorial process and in being part of Yəhaw̓.

Her own artistic medium is in beadwork and graphic design. Connecting with community at Yəhaw̓ events, she has felt “empowered to be with Native artists like myself, to chat and feel comradery, pushing to express Native heritage.”

As part of the process of knowledge sharing and empowerment at the core of Yəhaw̓, this was her first curatorial experience. Included in the show are Caroline Edwards (Swinomish), Denise Emerson (Diné/Twana), Karen Engel (Shoalwater Bay), Kimberly Miller (Skokomish), Abigail Pierson (Cowlitz).

From gallery shows, to artist residencies, to pop up markets and workshops, storytelling and shared meals, the many pieces of Yəhaw̓ are coming together to bring local Indigenous arts into focus.

For many Indigenous artists, “art is just woven into life, and that’s part of living life and practicality,” but Rector said there is “something about being recognized for a lifetime of knowledge that I think is important. These are creations by individuals who have for many years have been working towards their own goals and visions of how they want to express themselves and there’s something powerful in acknowledging that work.”

Look for more Yəhaw̓ events through the organizers’ website and instagram (@yehawshow)