A canoe that was created as part of an intertribe cultural effort on display at Colby College.  Photos by Luc Demers/courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

The first thing you see walking into “Wíwənikan … the beauty we carry” at the Colby College Museum of Art is a statement expressing respect to the indigenous communities, titled “Land Acknowledgement.”

It sets the tone for what Colby hoped to accomplish in holding the first ever exhibition of contemporary Wabanaki art in an American art museum: doing it right.

That required getting the right people involved, such Theresa Secord, a member of Penobscot nation as well as a member of the museum’s board of governors. Secord became a shepherd of the exhibition, which features contemporary art of the First Nations people collectively known as the Wabanaki – the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Abenaki.

The exhibition fills the museum’s main galleries with baskets, objects, paintings, videos, displays, jewelry, costumes, drawings and much more, as curated by a team of Wabanaki and Colby’s professional staff. As a fan of craft, I was immediately struck by the extraordinary exhibit. But I want to be clear: I don’t see a distinction between art and craft, but rather art and kitsch. I think most of what you see for sale in Maine – paintings, ceramics, photography and otherwise – is kitsch rather than art. But nothing in “Wíwənikan” is kitsch. To me, it’s all art, much of it quite important, and all of it meaningful.

From the perspective that arts are traditional in terms of maintaining cultural threads through myriad generations, stepping into a room filled with ash basketry, a chief’s raiment that took over 500 hours to replicate using traditional techniques, and a canoe that was created (and then used) as part of an intertribe cultural effort, “Wíwənikan” appears as a masterstroke of cultural reinvigoration. It’s one thing to see so much finely crafted stuff for sale at an art fair, but this is a multifaceted community’s culture on display. With every image, object and label, our understanding grows, our eyes and minds get wider.

“Penobscot Barrel,” by Theresa Secord

The basketry of First Nations people – the term used in the exhibition materials – has a growing audience. As a craft person, I see this as an expanding audience for art. In terms of a specific mode, “Wíwənikan” is at its strongest here. Secord’s ash and sweetgrass “Penobscot Barrel” is a supreme example, but it is hardly alone. Fred Tomah’s four-footed “Katahdin Arctic Butterfly #8” basket is a worthy masterwork that held me locked in place for a full half-hour. Even before I heard the process of Jeremy Frey’s elegant red and white cardinal-image-topped “Color in Winter,” I found it to be one of the most meaningful sculptures I have seen on this continent in years. But when I heard the process of harvesting the ash, pounding it, and so on, the meaning only became more powerful. While I thought nothing could bind my attention more aptly, Niskapisuwin’s “Apikcilu Binds the Sun” – an 18-inch basket of brown ash, sweetgrass and gold-plated glass beads – delivered a rainbow-trout-like sense of color that matched my favorite-ever color-oriented work of art: Jacapo da Pontormo’s “Deposition” in Santa Felicita in Italy.

Yet “Wíwənikan” is hardly a basketry show; it is an exhibition of contemporary art by active regional artists. To be sure, it would be possible to read (or write off) Erik Sappier’s 2008 birch “Moose Hunt” club as an echoed example of traditional weaponry passed out of use, but its sculptural power finds its way to the broader cultural/environmental reading of “Wíwənikan,” where a revolutionary spirit is undeniable. Step after step, we find traces of a culture that has revered nature. We see stories repeated to the point of mythology of people who had a fundamentally symbiotic sense of balance with their environment: Wabanaki culture is about 15,000 years old – appearing in the wake of the Laurentide Ice Sheet retreat about 20,000 years ago.

“Wíwənikan” is a uniquely challenging show, both visual and intellectually. For example, one Colby curator, in a conversation with me, referred to the “national conversation” in which the artists of “Wíwənikan” were engaged, but which nation is that? Many of us have long been involved in the decolonizing of museum practices among American museums (meaning more accurately and respectfully representing colonized peoples in art), but how much does that help establish a cultural discourse among First People nations artists that they feel is proper and apt to deploy within the American contemporary art discourse?

“Katahdin Arctic Butterfly” basket by Fred Tomah

By “discourse,” I mean the words, terms and ideas behind the language we use to discuss a specific field, such as medicine or law. This might sound fussy, but the terms often define the conversation, and we are way too comfortable talking about contemporary art in our own language. I personally found “Wíwənikan” extremely challenging in terms of the contemporary American art discourse’s use of words such as: appropriation, syncretism, diaspora, tradition, originality, quotation, history, anthropology, and so on.

In addition to displaying impressive objects, what “Wíwənikan” does particularly well is light the path for poignant cultural narratives. Or, maybe a better way to consider this is its opposite: For many viewers, “Wíwənikan” pulls the cultural rug out from under our assumptions. It clarifies that so much of our art language is imperialist and, therefore, not only culturally fragile, but morally wrong.

As a show of visual, cultural objects, “Wíwənikan” is moving and impressive. Its particular power, however, comes in disarming our habitual cultural discourse regarding art and aesthetic objects. The Colby museum staff wisely hands the commentary to the representatives of the First Nations people for both the show and its ensuing catalog. I am not suggesting in any way that viewers turn off their critical acumen, but I suggest that if you are a viewer who has cut their teeth on contemporary Western art, expect to be challenged about what you might have thought were simple points of, say, appropriation or national imperialism.

I have long been a fan of the cultures of First People nations of Maine, but “Wíwənikan” challenged and changed me. It’s difficult to digest. From a white Western perspective, it’s a troubling and complicated show. It’s hardly perfect, but sometimes we need to be rattled.

“Wíwənikan” just might be the most important show mounted in Maine in years.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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