Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

Lessons Learned: Global Digital Humanities Symposium @ MSU

So the symposium has ended. I still have a few hours to enjoy the snow outside in Lansing, Michigan and the amenities of this hotel room before I fly back to Minnesota. There was a lot to like about the Global Digital Humanities Symposium at Michigan State University (#msuglobaldh), and I was able to meet a lot of interesting people doing digital humanities work in a variety of disciplines (many of whom will now populate my twitter feed). But let me recount some of my personal takeaways.

1. Good things can happen when you intentionally include indigenous and global voices. In the same room. And more than one. In my experience, many conferences and symposia that I attend dedicated to a large topic, like “digital humanities,” tend to mostly focus on Euro-American projects and perspectives. If racism is brought up, it is about racism in America. If feminism is brought up, it is specifically a white, American feminist experience that rises to the forefront. In my own experience presenting, although I am not Ainu or Japanese, if I speak about indigenous Ainu historical representation in Japan, it always has to be framed and situated in this Euro-American context to be legible. I’m forced to repeatedly explain (a) who the Ainu are, (b) how they fit into Japan, (c) issues of indigenous representation broadly, and (d) why I am interested as a white female scholar and what my relationship is to that community (in addition to the ethical implications of this visual work). All of these things are important to address, but instead of feeling like an outlier or novelty project, it was nice to be taken seriously and be situated amongst projects asking similar questions about race, representation, visibility, and erasure. I was really interested in Rebecca Wingo‘s presentation, “Archival Repatriation: Reuniting the Crows with their Ancestors,” as there are facets of the work she is doing that reminds me of the work of Miyatake Kimio with regard to the Ainu and reintroducing lost photographs and objects from the St. Louis Exposition to their living descendants, and I learned that Rocio Quispe-Agnoli’s work has a lot of research questions in common with mine from a Latin American perspective.

2. Data is political and connected to the lives of real people, and we need to be mindful about how we mine it, cite it, represent it. We also need to consider how we ultimately label the work that we do. I think we all leave this symposium feeling a little more vigilant about these issues. Andrea Ledesma‘s paper “Witnessing Hate: Case Studies in Data, Documentation, and Social Justice,” asked us to consider what is means to bear witness to hate and then the implications and challenges of representing marginal identities when data becomes a statistic. Today, Viola Lasmana examined what a digital humanities that was engaged with freedom, revolution, and social justice might look like through the lens of post-1965 Indonesia. She channeled Edward Said on amateurism, and asks us to be critical of the term “global digital humanities” when there are many small, local projects that are not considered part of that corpus. To use a turn of phrase used by Anelise H. Shrout in her presentation about Irish immigrants and institutions like Bellevue, data needs to be humanized or we risk perpetuating archival violence. Real people are complicated. In the quest for clear or representable data, we can’t forget those border spaces that resist easy categorization and are thus rendered invisible.

3. The role or partnerships and collaboration in the digital humanities. This question was forcefully raised by Jennifer Hart‘s presentation “Accra Wala: mapping roads, mapping history, mapping partnerships,” where she spoke about building bridges between communities in Ghana and America. But from involving indigenous developers when designing games that represent the indigenous community, as raised by Elizabeth LaPensée, to considering institutional partners when working between one’s own project and the state to our student workers who assist in data collection and interpretation, collaborators take on many forms. The presentations over these past two days remind us that we rarely do our work alone.

4. The need for public funding for the arts and humanities. So many of the projects discussed over the last two days would have been stopped dead in their tracks without National Endowment for the Humanities or National Endowment for the Arts funding. In a scary intellectual environment where the NEH, NEA, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute for Museum and Library Services are being threatened to be cut from the budget, we must remain vigilant in protecting these. MSU Dean Christopher P. Long invokes Hobbes in saying, “For in the end, without the arts, without the humanities, there is no shared future; there is no society at all, but rather, a collection of increasingly isolated individuals for whom life has become ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'”

I totally underestimated the challenges of attending a conference while getting over a nasty cold, but I’m so glad that I made it here in one piece (even though I had lost my voice for my own presentation… C’est la vie). However, lots to mull over as I move forward with my own work in this area.

Antique Finds: Inuit in the Twin Cities

The greatest part of moving to St. Paul thus far has been the sheer amount of local antique and thrift shops. I love antiquing because of the treasures you unexpectedly come across. A while ago, I posted about two Ainu nipopo dolls that I stumbled across in an Orange County shop. Although I will never again be so lucky, it is surprisingly easy to find affordable and original artwork when antiquing. Although I am usually pretty lucky with American prints and lithographs, this past weekend I spotted an Inuit painting of a salmon hung high on the wall. Needless to say, about an hour later, it came home with me.

 

Spawning Salmon Rattle by Haida-Salish artist Jordon Seward. Yellow cedar and cedar bark.

Spawning Salmon Rattle by Haida-Salish artist Jordon Seward. Yellow cedar and cedar bark.

Salmon was and is a lifeline for many northern indigenous peoples, the Ainu included. In Hokkaido, Ainu elders hold ceremonies for the divine fish (kamuy cep) to ensure their abundance each year. The fish held importance as both spirit and sustenance. (If you want to know more about the relationship between the Ainu and salmon, especially now, I recommend this essay). It is amazing how the stories of the salmon in the Pacific Northwest resonate with those of the Ainu. Recounted by Clint Leung, the salmon were seen as eternal people who lived in the ocean. When the tribes who lived on land were starving, the salmon presented themselves as fish to ease their hunger. The bones of the salmon were ceremonially taken back to the ocean in order to ensure their return the following year. Animals that give themselves to satiate our hunger are worthy of our respect.

 

The Trapped Salmon by Haisla artist Lyle Wilson. Glass and aluminum.

In 2010, the Inuit Gallery of Vancouver held a show called The Return: Salmon Imagery in Northwest Coast Art. The artists blended traditional designs and iconography with their own signature style and materials in sculpture, painting, and jewelry design. The “return” in the title could refer to the yearly return of the spawning salmon to the river or the original return of the salmon’s bones to the ocean. But it could also refer to a return of interest in a fish that has been heavily impacted by everything from industrialization, over fishing, pollution, to climate change. As various species dwindle, people are once again considering the cultural and environmental importance of the fish. The website for exhibition shares a quote from Andy Everson, who explains, “People often ask me why I keep including salmon in my artwork. The answer to this lies with the importance of salmon to me, my relatives and my ancestors. Put simply, salmon was the vital link between mere survival and the development of the splendor of our culture.”

 

One thing about looking at art from the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshiam, Kwagiutl and Sadish peoples in the Pacific Northwest is that there is a certain inventiveness and consistency of design that makes the styles iconic. I agree with Leung in that if you put works from this region next to any other, you would still be able to isolate those features which make it unique. Although his e-book on Pacific Northwest art focuses on sculpture and falls short of an academic treatise, it provides a helpful cheat sheet for beginners introducing some of these design elements–the formline, the ovoid shape, the u-form shape, the split u-form shape, and the s-form shape. These small elements are combined, juxtaposed, and contrasted to create larger forms. Most all of these shapes can be found in Lyle Wilson’s The Trapped Salmon above, but they are also present in the painting that I found.

 

In this work, the formline of the salmon is a thick and black modulated line that encases most of the body. Although most contemporary artists use commercial ink, in traditional works, the formline was typically created with pigment from charcoal, graphite or lignite charcoal. Occasionally red formlines are also seen, created from red ochre or hematite. Several ovoid shapes make their appearance here. It defines the eye socket of the salmon, fills out the fin, and is used to hinge together the body and the tail. The body of the salmon is defined by contrasting s-form shapes, which mimic the striation of the salmon’s flesh, and split u-form shapes perhaps reminding us of its bone structure. The split u-form shape reappears inside the eye, fin, and tail. And, finally, the fish’s gills are defined by a single, simple u-form shape. The aspect of this work that interests me is the string of pearly red roe spewed almost fountain-like out of the mouth of a face located near the fish’s pelvis.

 

All of these small shapes merge together to form a larger creature. Alongside the salmon, artworks commonly feature the bear, the killer whale, the thunderbird, and the raven. The repetition of common forms across these sacred creatures is a powerful device in both traditional and contemporary art. I also find that art from the Pacific Northwest presents a great opportunity for teaching students visual analysis, and the differences between iconography and style, or about the different effects of line, space, and color.

 

IMG_0475.jpgIn my own research on the Ainu, it is not all that common to see representational art in older work (although bear carving and representations of salmon are both present staples of tourist and contemporary art). Instead, most graphic art similarly focuses on the repetition of smaller design elements, called siriki in Ainu. In embroidery and woodcarving, these patterns are combined into unique compositions, as seen here in these Ainu robes. I’ve reproduced a helpful chart from the Ainu Pirka Kotan website for your reference below. Occasionally there is more in common than what appears at first glance.

 

 

"Ainu Siriki," from Ainu Pirka Kotan website.

“Ainu Siriki,” from Ainu Pirka Kotan website.

If anybody knows any information about the artist of this work (or helpful resources that may point me in the right direction), please do let me know. I would love to learn more about it.

Lessons from the Native American Art Show

アイヌ・アートが担う新たな役割―米国先住民アートショーに学ぶIt is really fascinating to learn about one’s own country in a foreign country… Or at least that was my experience at yesterday’s アイヌ・アートが担う新たな役割―米国先住民アートショーに学ぶ Symposium (“Promotion and Communication of Ainu Arts and Culture: Learning from the Native American Art Shows in the U.S. Southwest”). In the true spirit of multicultural collaboration, the goal was to examine the role of the “art show” for the Zuni tribe (Pueblo Native Americans located around the four corners region of the United States), and consider how Ainu art and craft production could fit within such a framework.

There were three presentations (Robert Breunig, Jim Enote, and Kaizawa Kazuaki), a dialogue with a Zuni artist (Octavius Seowtewa and Jim Enote), and a discussion panel (previous 4 speakers, Yamasaki Koji, and Ito Atsunori). The following are some issues/moments that stood out to me.

  • What is an “art show“? Throughout the various presentations, the art show was described as having two primary motives. The first being the creation of a market for indigenous art production and the second being a way of communicating indigenous culture (and current conditions) to both the source community in addition to an outside market. Jim Enote described both the art show and the museum space as an ideal “contact zone” of cultures (a word that is also arising often in my own research). Issues concerning audience arose several times over the course of the afternoon, and many of the scholars questioned who an art show (or a museum) actually serves. However, it was mutually acknowledged with regard to the Zuni and the Ainu that both cultures had a long history of art exhibition (and production) that remained in need of attention.
  • There was much discussion about the role and definition of the “traditional” and the “authentic” with regards to the artistic practice of indigenous peoples, and this was discussed in terms of form, material, and the problems associated with fervent copying of indigenous objects (both within one’s own country and internationally). A comment that was raised by Breunig and Enote was that the authenticity of materials (such as certain woods or stones) carries limited meaning if a context for the buying and selling of that art is absent. As such, Kaizawa and Enote both discussed the importance of an “Ainu brand” or a “Zuni brand” that facilitated educated buying of indigenous goods. In a memorable analogy, Enote compared buying indigenous art to buying wine. Wine-tasting seminars (and, conversely, the museum) help people to understand what they are buying by teaching them to discriminate between objects. If people learn to appreciate authenticity, then they will seek it out. Again, relating back to audience, the “they” here refers to the art connoisseur — what role do these objects play in the source community?  How can a younger  generation learn and innovate on the diverse artistic traditions?
  • A member of the audience asked a tough question of the two Zuni members regarding the issue of a “national apology” for Japanese actions during the Meiji period in light of the new (national) Ainu museum scheduled to be built in Shiraoi by the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Reflecting on the Zuni’s relationship with the United States government, Enote responded, “We don’t want an apology, we want a thank you.” Rather than apologizing for actions in the past that cannot be undone, a “thank you” involves a much more active acknowledgment of Zuni/Native American contribution to the history of the United States. There was an audible reaction from the audience on this one.

20140126-5The symposium’s spirit of collaboration was great, and there were many lessons to be learned on both sides. At the same time, such a format also makes apparent many unique issues for each group that do not have a strong parallels. For example, in the case of the Zuni, there is a real problem of other tribes copying Zuni goods for the market, thus undermining a “Zuni style” and devaluing Zuni labor.

It seems like many of the same speakers will continue the discussion along different lines at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka starting tomorrow (1/28) in an international workshop entitled, “Re-Collection and Sharing Traditional Knowledge, Memories, Information, and Images: Problem and the Prospects on Creating Collaborative Catalog.”

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