Published: July 20, 2004
Dispelling long-held conceptions about the artistic merit of tribal creations, a dazzling display of 200 works of art from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century lends serious credence to the ingenuity and integrity of Native American artists. On view through September 18 at the Smithsonian’s George Gustav Heye Center in the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in lower Manhattan, “First American Art” presents a trove of richly adorned, beautifully created pieces as high art, rather than ethnological relics or folkloric curios.
The collection is on loan from Charles and Valerie Diker, longtime New Yorkers who have devoted three decades to collecting and appreciating fine Native American art. Although many of the objects are traditional, the exhibition’s concept goes far to shape the view of the art.
In 2003, a group of Native and non-Native artists, art historians, critics, writers and anthropologists from NMAI and across North America discussed a new paradigm for the articulation of Native American art. The show is a product of that collaboration. The group arrived at seven common concepts of Native aesthetic systems: idea, emotion, intimacy, movement, integrity, vocabulary and composition.
“The intention was to present it and show how the artists individually taking the special language of their culture have managed to create works that can be looked at universally,” said the exhibition’s co-curator Gerald McMaster.
The exhibition references its varied philosophical principles as it goes. For example, Native Americans believe good art elicits emotion: an experience of beauty, of a moment captured in time, of a piece of light, or an event represented as exactly as the observer remembers. The art is made to express movement through pattern, shape or symbol. This movement refers not only to the dynamism of the immediate physical environment but also to the universe that surrounds us – sky to earth.
Integrity, Native Americans believe, is what guides the character of artists and their relationship to their cultural heritage over time, the world around them, their traditional media, and the level of mastery they must reach in order to articulate both form and idea.
The exhibition is astonishing in both concept and presentation. Many of the pieces are truly exquisite. In particular the include a highly creative “Turtle Bag,” circa 1800, Eastern Great Lakes area, made of hide, porcupine quill and cotton thread; a penetrating Tlingit mask circa 1820-1860 on painted wood; and a stunning “Octopus Bag,” circa 1860, from St James Bay Cree, made of cotton, wool silk, vibrant glass beads, wood and cotton thread.
Works even more arresting include a highly expressive Tsimshian rattle, dated 1780-1820, made of wood, hair, bone, nails, paint, sinew and rattling material; and a Tlingit “Shaman’s Figure,” circa 1870, made of iron, hair, cordage, hide and wool, which elicits an emotional and naïve quality.
Garments such as a pair of Cheyenne baby moccasins with colorful, intricately beaded soles and a Wasco dress, circa 1870, made of glass beads, teeth, hide, shell and brass, are impressive achievements in craftsmanship. Colorfully beaded Comanche and Kiowa baby carriers, dated between 1870 and 1885, made of cotton, wood and hide, are fine examples of native ingenuity. The pieces are both utilitarian and aesthetically considered in design.
Kiowa and Arapaho ledger drawings by Plains artists from the mid-Nineteenth Century are also included. Not to be missed is the Lakota watercolor and ink drawing on cotton of the “Battle of Little Big Horn,” circa 1885, done by Standing Bear, represented in a 3- by 9-foot mural of the June 25, 1876, battle he fought as a 17-year-old boy with Crazy Horse. The drawing depicts the battlefield in full action, with dozens of soldiers and Indians in combat, some felled by arrows, with Indians making off with horses of the 220 troops who died.
“It’s a great show,” said Rachahd Garguilo, public affairs assistant at NMAI. “It is set up to get close and intimate with the objects,” she said.
“We set out to isolate these as wonderful works of art, as individual pieces of art and to present them in a beautifully designed exhibition space,” said McMaster, who is also deputy assistant director for cultural resources. “We wanted to allow the visitor to approach the work, front and back; everything seems to be sculptural, so it’s important to walk around it. We wanted to create a visitor experience to put these works in a creative light, to give the works physical space and juxtaposition. We quite discreetly put the seven principles on the wall. The point is not to cloud your experience of the work. Your visitor experience had to be an aesthetic experience. Just by confronting it, you go, ‘wow, what a beautiful shape, or color.'”
Some of the pieces not to be missed, according to Garguilo, include the oldest piece in the exhibition, a Pueblo clay jar with geometric design dated 1050 and a ledger drawing called “Twelve High Ranking Kiowa Men,” circa 1880, by Julian Scott, done in ink and colored pencil on paper. “The artistry and detail of the pieces are incredible.”
The beaded Cheyenne infant moccasins are also significant. “The artists intended them for you to look at them, unlike footwear made today,” said McMaster. “If you were sitting down on the ground, looking at your shoes, the design was intended for you.” They were self-directed and offered spiritual protection for the child. “In the layers of meaning and understanding, it’s very complex,” he said.
“It’s not so much that they were making different statements,” said Garguilo. “Some things are just made to be beautiful. There were people making objects for the beauty and not the purpose. It’s amazing, breathtaking work. The images don’t do it justice until you see the work. Even people who see the images are blown away by it, because it’s just great work.”
Garguilo also hopes the show broadens the perception of Native American art.
An enticing ceremonial dance ornament, circa 1900, made of feathers, wood and pigment, is also worth seeing. Miscellaneous functional objects also include ladles, pipes, jars, tobacco bags, bowls, baskets and shoulder pouches.
It is impossible to view these works and not be in awe of the sheer craftsmanship of these objects, the time and dedication of the artists behind them, and their impact on Native American art as an entity. The Dikers, of course, came to appreciate those qualities years ago.
They began collecting art in the late 1950s, concentrating primarily on modern American and European painting and sculpture. Later, they began collecting non-Western art with the same aesthetic eye that guided their early collecting decisions. Rather than focusing their Native American art collection on objects with historical significance or trying to achieve ethnological representation, they built a collection based on their love of beautiful objects.
A registered investment adviser, Charles Diker is chairman of the board of Cantel Medical Corp and a managing partner of Diker Management LLC. Valerie Diker is a writer and philanthropist. The Dikers are co-chairs of board of directors of the Smithsonian’s George Gustav Heye Center.
“Works were created to please the spirit,” said McMaster. “It’s hard for western audiences to understand that. I think that’s what makes this exhibition in a different philosophical realm. It’s a return to the spiritual realm, the world around us. If you look, you begin to realize the differentiation and the appeal that these are more than for human consumption. There are transcendental moments, where you realize the work has affected you in an emotional way, I think great art does.”
The show is co-curated by Bruce Bernstein, assistant director for cultural resources. A 256-page catalog of the exhibition with essays by Bernstein, McMaster, Margaret Dubin and Donald Kuspit will be published by the National Museum of the American Indian in association with the University of Washington Press at a cost of $29.95, soft cover, and $50, hardcover.
Presently, exhibitions are on a rotation basis. Nothing is on view from the permanent collection. Other exhibitions currently on view include “Language of Native American Baskets from the Weaver’s View,” through January 9, showcasing the process of basketmaking; and “Continuum, 12 Artists,” featuring the works of contemporary Native American Artists, through August.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustave Heye Center is at One Bowling Green, across from Battery Park. The museum is free and open daily from 10 am to 5 pm; Thursdays until 8 pm. For information, 212-514-3700, 212-514-3888 or .
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