Something Like Enchantment: Nuuchaanulth Thliitsapilthim, In/Visibility, and the Materiality of Public Secrecy

  • Adam Solomonian


Thliitsapilthim is a term used in the Huupacasaht dialect of the Nuuchaanulth language for large ceremonial curtains manufactured since the late nineteenth century out of single or sometimes multiple sections of muslin cotton. The term is roughly translatable to “easily moveable interior partition made in a meaningful way” (White 2013: 775). In 2010, the University of British Columbia’s Belkin Gallery presented “for the first time, contemporary ceremonial curtains…and historical curtains from museum and private collections in Canada and the United States” (Belkin Gallery 2009), and thus an opportunity to consider thliitsapilthim in an entirely new situation, one of cross-cultural dialogue and translation. Here thliitsapilthim take on a new role, or perhaps refashion an old one: not as objects that trouble the now clichéd categories of “art” and “artefact,” but as objects whose very materiality present an opportunity to consider larger questions of Nuuchaanulth knowledge and its ethical engagement from a non-Nuuchaanulth perspective. Drawing on recent discussions of materiality, visual culture, and affect I argue that where the public display of Indigenous cultural objects was once 30 the site to raise questions of access to and restriction of cultural knowledge (Myers 2002; Townsend-Gault 2004), it is now the site for new questions that emerge from an already-given understanding that objects are, at least partially, unknowable and even ultimately invisible in many ways, while still being physically present.
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