The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is finally celebrating the creativity and beauty of Native American art. Previously displayed among works from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, this is the first time that Native American art has been exhibited in the American Wing of the museum. Including Indigenous art as part of American heritage marks an important change in the way that Native American art is curated. The previous treatment of Indigenous art and culture as ‘lesser’ than European culture and somehow not as ‘American’ is a dangerous legacy of colonialism that continues to jeopardise the social and political position of Native Americans today.
Two exhibitions at the Met are calling into question this long history of obscuring the vitality and prestige of Native American art. Firstly, Art of Native America, open until October 2019, explores the complexity and creativity of Native American life and art. Secondly, Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America, open until May 2019, investigates the (mis)representations of Native Americans by non-native artists, and how these stereotypes have persisted into the present day. These exhibitions will elevate Native American art, but most significantly, they will demonstrate that the legacies of Western colonialism continue to jeopardise the rights of Indigenous peoples today in the USA and Canada.
Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection features art from over fifty Indigenous groups from across the United States and refuses to shy away from the violent colonial setting in which the works were created. The exhibit includes a mask worn by Tsimshian leaders in British Columbia, bags and tunics intricately made by artists using porcupine quillwork and finger weaving in the Woodlands, and some of the world’s finest woven baskets made thousands of years ago by Native American women. Sylvia Yount, the curator of the American Wing, points out that “these aren’t extinct cultures, many cultures are still continuing, like with traditional beadwork and basket-making.” She adds, “we are doing programming with contemporary artists and tribal leaders to make sure dialogues are visible.”
Bringing these artistic works into the spotlight demonstrates the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Native Americans. At a time when Europeans were on a violent colonial mission, invading ancestral land, spreading lethal disease and committing genocide, Native Americans continued to produce beautiful works of art. Yount believes in the fundamental importance in sharing the stories of Native American lineage: “what does it really mean to call yourself ‘an encyclopaedic institution’, if you’re not really telling and sharing all these different stories?”
Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America exhibits presentations of Native Americans by European artists, from the ‘Indian princess’ to the ‘noble savage’. These (mis)representations reflect the romanticised imaginations of Europeans but have shaped enduring stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as ‘uncivilised’ and ‘primitive’. The exhibit includes a painting named The Discovery of America by Dutch artist Jan van der Straet, dated 16th century, depicting a nude Indigenous woman who represents the New World. In Pavel Petrovich Svinin’s painting, Two Indians and a White Man in a Canoe, Europeans and Native Americans are depicted enjoying a harmonious relationship, but this was far from reality.
Amid colonial upheaval and cultural obliteration, such representations are more telling of the anxieties of colonial societies than of the realities of Native American life. According to exhibition curator, Shannon Vittoria, “like many European artists of the 16th century, the artist didn’t travel to the Americas, but instead invented visual conventions to depict Indigenous peoples that he knew little about.” Showing up past mistakes is crucial as “it offers an opportunity to better understand the origins of these long-lasting stereotypes”.
Native Americans today continue fighting to counter racist stereotypes and to secure ancestral land rights. The civil rights of Native Americans in North Dakota are even being challenged with the Republicans attempting to limit the voting rights of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in order to secure their victory in the next election.
The Met is initiating a new direction in the way Native American art is curated, displayed and consumed by the American public. According to anthropologist Chip Colwell, “the Met’s decision isn’t important because it elevates Native art, but because it represents a museum’s acknowledgement of Western ethnocentrism – the false belief that Western art is inherently superior. A history of exclusion may finally be overcome.” The success of these exhibitions has the potential to reverberate into American society and politics, helping to dismantle this particular legacy of colonialism.
Images courtesy of The Met