The same contradictions and cohesion that makes art worth exploring is the same thing that makes it so difficult to define. While the American Art: The Stories We Carry exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum presents it as a question to be answered, it would be more accurate to consider it a framework to view each piece by. Within each piece and within each question, the exhibit presents nuance–what is American art specifically? Who gets to decide? Curated by Inye Wokoma, American Art: The Stories We Carry highlights the uniqueness of different racial identities and backgrounds in America, especially in the Pacific Northwest, and perceptions of them here and beyond. It presents Indigenous and African-American ties to the land, contrasted with the perspectives of the first colonists in the area. The gallery uses this contradiction to display the relationship and responsibility settlers have to Indigenous people in the area and how that compares with the connections they have with the land.
The gallery opens with two landscapes paintings with similar settings: Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma – Puget Sound (1875) by Sanford Robinson Gifford and Mitchell's Point Looking Down the Columbia (1887) by Grafton Tyler Brown both portray the terrain of the Pacific Northwest, with majestic mountains towering in the distance and expansive waterways laid out beyond. The scenery juxtaposes with the role of Indigenous people in the paintings—in Wokoma's words, Indigenous people are considered to be "wild and remote," but even more than that, their role in the environment is significantly diminished. In both paintings, Indigenous people are pictured as diminutive and less than, with their faces blurred out and the focus being on the landscape over the people present on it. They're disregarded on their own land, despite Wokoma's note that land serves as both an origin story and a significant cultural element for many Indigenous groups. Clearly, landscapes weren't the paradigm of impartiality they masqueraded as. This dynamic sets the stage for the rest of the exhibit, which reclaims the role of Indigenous people and changes the position from which viewpoints are centered.
Mitchell's Point Looking D own the Columbia, 1887, Grafton Tyler Brown, oil on canvas, 18 x 30 in. Bruce Leven Acquisition Fund, 2020.26