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The Concept of The Power of Giving Examined in New Exhibition at Museum in Dresden
A woman walks past Indian exhibits at the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau inDresden, Germany, 05 May 2011. The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Dresden State Art Collections) host the special exhibition 'The Power of Giving' from 07 May to 21 August 2011. A unique collection of masks, vessels, and regalia from the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations of Canada's Northwest Coast is presented to public. EPA/MATTHIAS HIEKEL.

DRESDEN.- The U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia, Canada and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Dresden State Art Collections) in Dresden, Germany are collaborating on an exhibition project that will examine, compare and contrast the role of the gift as well as illustrate the gift-giving rituals and ceremonies within two very different cultures: the Kwakwaka‘wakw First Nation and the German aristocracy. “We have all experienced gift-giving. By exploring ceremonial gift-giving in the baroque Saxon court and the Kwakwaka’wakw Big House, this exhibition challenges us to look under the surface of this everyday human activity and think about how gift-giving is both a physical and symbolic exchange. Participating in this ground-breaking collaboration creates an exciting opportunity for us to share Kwakwaka’wakw culture with European audiences. It‘s also an historic opportunity to share treasures of the Saxon court with our community and with Canadians who have never before been able to see them in Canada. It‘s a unique event in the relationship of Europe to the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest.“ Sarah Holland, Executive Director, U’mista Cultural Centre.

The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Dresden State Art Collections) are among the most prominent museums in the world. The combined collections of the twelve museums offer remarkable thematic diversity. The U’mista Cultural Centre will be presenting a selection of precious artifacts from the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. The items will come from the collections of the Rüstkammer (Armoury), the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative arts), the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault), and Porzellansammlung (Porcelain Collection) with the theme of “the gift” and abundance.

With Art values at extravagant levels, the increase and distribution of works of art and objects of value within the state coffers gave the electors global power and respect. The Dresden electors held numerous costly masquerades and festivals to demonstrate their ability to afford excessive luxury. During these royal festivals and performances, the electors distributed to and exchanged treasures with the members of their courts and other rulers. This exchange was beneficial for both the electors and the members of the courts. With the help of the gift culture at the Dresden court, the electors’ treasuries grew and laid the foundation for the art collections of Dresden’s Staatliche Kunstsammlungen. These collections demonstrate the continuous abundance, richness, and exchange of art works and objects of value throughout the history of the electors of Dresden. This project will be funded in part by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, including funding for collaboration between researchers from the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations and researchers from the Dresden State Art Collections.

The U’mista Cultural Centre consists of a community centre and a small museum of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations culture. The centre is located in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, which is situated near the North coast of Vancouver Island and positioned off the Canadian Northwest coast. The Centre is one of the most well-known, longest-running, and successful First Nations cultural facilities in Canada. Founded in 1980 as a groundbreaking community centre and museum to house repatriated potlatch artifacts, its main goals are to maintain and promote the cultural heritage of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations. The U’mista Cultural Centre also houses an archive, library, and research centre. Around 50 pieces of regalia (a portion of the U’mista collection) will be on display in the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau Dresden starting May 7th, 2011.

The sacred masks to be exhibited, some of which are 300 years old, were among the items that were confiscated after a potlatch ceremony in 1921 and distributed amongst various museums and private collectors. At the time of the confiscation, the First Nations were facing cultural oppression and a prohibition had been placed upon the ceremony of potlatch.

The potlatch is a culmination of all aspects of life for the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. Spiritual, economic, judicial, social and political organization, performing arts and the major events of an individual’s life are all integral parts of the potlatch. During the ceremony, the gifts are usually distributed in ritual fashion and with great abundance: ornate textiles, basket work, silver jewellery, carvings, and especially food. Reasons to hold a potlatch include naming, marriages, birth, and ceremonial transfers. The people who witnessed these transactions were compensated with gifts. By accepting payment and witnessing these events, the guests assent to the family’s claims.

In the late 19th century (1884), the potlatch was prohibited on the grounds that it was “pointless extravagance” and many items used during the ceremony were confiscated. In 1951, it became legal to potlatch again. The Kwakwaka’wakw began the decades-long process of repatriating the regalia that had been confiscated. The U’mista Cultural Centre now exhibits and preserves the items that have been returned to the descendants of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations of British Columbia, Canada. This exhibition will be the first time the majority of the masks will be displayed collectively outside Canada.

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