Old meets new: Art worlds collide at Gallery Atitlan

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March 14, 2005 // UPDATED 1:52 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Anna Pratt
Anna Pratt

Surreal images of dreams, pointed bird's-eye views, busy village celebrations and complex three-dimensional tapestries from indigenous cultures - work you won't find anywhere else locally - link the Old World and New World at Gallery Atitlan, 609 S. 10th St. in Elliot Park.

Embedded symbols and icons testify to the fusion of ancient and contemporary societies. Altogether the artists strive literally to "re-member" a dismembered history, putting creation back together like a jigsaw puzzle.

This vibrant showroom affords a unique glimpse into a canon of artwork that sprang out of American cultures overshadowed by European conquest. The gallery amplifies these muted voices as their traditions fade into oblivion in their respective homelands.

Founder Richard White opened the gallery a year ago with the attitude of a zealous explorer whose shovel has struck buried treasure.

After traveling to Guatemala and other areas of South America, he wondered what happened when European cultures came to North and South America. What did the Euros bring with them and what did they find? How did they interact with the indigenous cultures and what communities arose from that?

Gallery Atitlan serves as a conduit between these obscured cultures and ours. "We're kind of a nexus for interactivity between people who produce this work while living in traditional communities, who are trying to preserve the old ways," White said.

He hopes to conserve and recognize these artists' creations sensitively. He also wants to fuel conversations about this broad cultural exchange and stressed the importance of keeping these cultures alive.

White said that these cultures' heritages should be preserved not only for archival and philosophical reasons, but also because many of the lessons and values that these indigenous cultures have to offer were once essential to their subsistence.

He talked about a Mayan community that inadvertently destroyed its water supply once it traded its ritual life for evangelical Christianity. Their new beliefs abandoned previous water purification measures.

The same idea applies to artwork, he explained. Just as some acts illuminated early scientific procedures, those cultures' artworks shed light on a frazzled social history. Their paintings and weavings filled in some gaps about indigenous ways of life.

Gathering a pool of work that speaks to such themes, White conceived Gallery Atitlan, which takes its namesake from Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. The gallery links viewers to Amazonian, Australian aboriginal, Columbian, Cuban, Haitian and U.S. West Coast artists, as well as local artists who work within indigenous cultures to suspend traditions. They hail from both modern and traditional communities. Many of these artists also continue these crafts for business reasons, in order to provide funds to their communities.

In a statement about the gallery, White asserts, "In addition to supporting the creators of this art, we seek to provide avenues through which the knowledge, wisdom and spirituality alive in indigenous cultures will enter the modern world as a healing force and inform our continued evolution as a civilization."

White wanted to honor the artwork not merely as vestiges of a bygone time, but as valid artworks. But he didn't have an artistic background and wasn't a serious art collector. Rather, White's experience was in real estate and mortgage loans. He ran a business called Richard White and Associates, which he still manages, specializing in mortgages for apartment complexes. He's dealt with mortgages in just about every other capacity for the past decade. Prior to that he managed a real estate office in Southwest. With no grants or subsidies to aid the process, he spent just about every spare cent and spare moment building the gallery last year.

Partly English and Norwegian and raised Episcopalian, this fair-complexioned manager's longtime interest in cultural history generated the gallery concept. During his extracurricular studies he became especially intrigued by the interaction of indigenous cultures with their conquerors.

Dream Catcher

Although the artwork showing at Gallery Atitlan is part of a movement called "Nave," White asserts that the title doesn't imply inexperienced or lacking. Nave can mean native, self-taught, craft or other "outsider" art that doesn't emerge from an art school.

White said that he found clarity and inspiration in the work of the Mayan communities at Guatemala's Lake Atitlan, where there was a notion of "innate spirituality" that persisted even as they absorbed the Catholic iconography thrust on them by Spanish invaders.

"We have a tendency to see these cultures as failed attempts at becoming us, rather than what they are, which is a repository of all kinds of physical, spiritual and emotional wisdom. Modern cultures need to learn from them in order to survive," he said softly.

One of those we might need to survive is Anishinaabe oil painter Rabbett Strickland, who's also an inventor and mathematician. Strickland's flat, matte-finished works dwarf visitors, some of which reach 10.5 feet by 6.5 feet. Centering on the mythic character Nanaboozhoo, the Ojibwe Great Spirit that appears in many native parables, he shows free-flowing figures with acid blue hair who fight a tough current as they're swept up into assimilation on monumental canvases. Nanaboozhoo possesses both divine powers and human weaknesses. With creeping warm tones, the Botticelli-like Native American people drown in a lake.

Other Strickland figures grasp a flagpole bearing the U.S. flag while another speaks to genetically modified rice. These are visions that appeared to Strickland in his sleep and persisted until he transcribed them with a brush.

On another wall electric palettes animate lively street life for a fiesta that commemorated the naming of everything on earth, with half-god, half-human characters poised ceremoniously on the street.

The gallery frames indigenous artists' works in a formal setting, an intentional design move that White used to highlight the work in the most flattering environment possible. He didn't want the walls to compete with the pieces and asserted, "This isn't art to match a sofa."

To get the building up to par, White transformed the space that was formerly a car dealership, a Somali language school and a performance space. It required a major facelift. Plywood walls were demolished. Carpet was ripped out to expose hardwood floors. Ugly green walls were freshly coated with white paint except for one small all-black passage.

Considering that the openings have been well-attended and some artwork sold (works are priced from $200-$24,000), White said he thinks the gallery is a success.

"I think it's going extraordinarily well," he said with a smile. "I think we created a remarkable venue. A lot of things come together in the neighborhood, city and the world. A lot of people who know more about this business than I do have been really encouraging."

There's already evidence that the cultural intersection White has created will be a busy one. Soon the gallery will house diverse art forms, including drama and spoken word. Already slated for mid-April is a site-specific play (it's set in a gallery) called "American Sublime" by local playwright Patty Lynch, produced by Terry Hempleman and the local Playwright's Center.

Visit Gallery Atitlan during gallery hours, Tu-W, F noon-6 p.m., Th noon-8 p.m., Sa 1-5 p.m. and by appointment. Call 436-5555 or check out www.galleryatitlan.com.