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September 01, 2004

Contemporary Native Artworks Are Extraordinary Addition to Burke Collections

Selections from the Steinman collection on display through Oct. 15.

Many recent visitors to the Burke have admired the NorthwestCoast argillite carvings on display in the lobby since April. The pieces give a glimpse of the Steinman Collection44 argillite sculptures and 372 other works by contemporary Native American artists donated to the Burke by Arthur B. Steinman. A Florida resident and a long-time collector of African art, Steinman discovered a new passion when he began acquiring NorthwestCoast art in 1999.

Steinman's extraordinary gift is an important addition to the Burke's NorthwestCoast collection. Many of the pieces are by up and coming young artists whose work will grow in value as these artists become widely recognized. From masks, to drums, carved boxes, and other objects, these works fill in gaps and strengthen the Burke's collection of contemporary Native art.

Although only a small part of the collection, the argillite carvings are the contemporary expression of an art form with a fascinating history. Argillite was the first tourist art produced on the NorthwestCoast. The stone is a carved and polished carbonaceous shale that is found in a deposit in the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Haida began carving the stone in the early 1800s to make smoking pipes used at funerals and for sale to European fur traders.

Argillite was the vehicle for documenting significant cultural changes throughout the late 1800s. Around this time Native celebrations (potlatches) were being outlawed, so the argillite sculpture gave artists an outlet for expressing traditional motifs and myths.

"Argillite tourist art became a bridge to keep art traditions alive and to preserve the imagery for future generations," Wright notes.

Many contemporary Native American artists first worked in argillite, which was the primary art medium in the early twentieth century. Most of these artists later diversified to work in other art forms including wood carving and print-making. "Haida art has come full circle, with argillite as the bridge," Wright says.

One of the reasons Arthur Steinman selected the Burke to be the recipient of his impressive collection of contemporary NorthwestCoast art was because Wright is a leading scholar in this field and Steinman wanted this collection to be available for study by scholars, students, and the general public.

Samples from the collection will be on view in the Burke lobby through October 13.

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