A landmark exhibition of more than 500 pieces of contemporary and historic Native American jewelry and artifacts, “Totems to Turquoise: Native North American Jewelry Arts of the Northwest and Southwest” celebrates the beauty, power and symbolism of modern Native jewelry arts.
The exhibition, which opens on October 30 and runs through July 10, honors a rich, complex and diverse art form, the foundations of which lie in thousands of years of culture and experience.
“Totems to Turquoise” contains more than 100 objects from the museum’s collection of Native American artifacts, and also presents recent totem sculptures, traditional and modern masks, and photographs and videos of Northwest Coast and Southwest rituals that are strongly connected with the cosmological beliefs of each tribe.
“Totems to Turquoise” showcases artwork from the North-west Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Tsimshian, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, Tlingit, Heiltsuk, Nuu-chah-nulth, Nuxalk, Haisla and Coast Salish tribes, and the Southwest Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Santo Domingo, Taos, other Pueblos, and Apache.
“Totems to Turquoise” is divided into four sections. The Introductory Gallery has groupings of jewelry and objects that introduce key themes in the exhibition: cultural continuity from ancient to modern, distinct regional styles, jewelry as portable symbolic art, motifs transferred to jewelry from other art forms such as masks and blankets, and how artists today are both drawing upon and departing from tradition.
Visitors are introduced to various tribes living on the marine Northwest Coast and in the desert Southwest through a five-minute video that explores the differences and connections among the peoples of the two areas.
The Cultural Context section offers visitors an understanding of how these groups of Native Americans see themselves and the world around them, an understanding that is embodied in the many objects they make, including jewelry. Displaying jewelry together with headdresses, masks, pottery and other historic and contemporary objects, this section examines different aspects of world views, including the role of seasons and seasonal resources, the significance of directionality and a layered universe, the importance of transformation and shamanism, and the pervasiveness of mythology in daily life.
In Contemporary Jewelry, Master Artists and Historical Stories, each geographic region is divided into major tribal groupings, featuring the Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and Santo Domingo of the Southwest; and the Haida, Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw of the Northwest Coast. Jewelry and artifacts, accompanied by informative text panels about these tribes, focus on their hallmark styles and techniques and also highlight the exceptional contributions of individual artists.
The final section explores commonalities between the two geographic regions, displaying artifacts from the Northwest Coast and the Southwest that suggest intriguing parallels in the past and reveal mutual influences in the present.
A video installation spanning three plasma screens presents many of the artists discussing their vibrant art and culture against backdrops of stunning landscapes.
The museum is celebrating the exhibition’s opening day on Saturday, October 30, with an afternoon event featuring Native American dancers in ceremonial regalia, including representatives of the Haida Nation from the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada and the Cellicion Dancers from the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico. The celebration is free with suggested museum admission.
The American Museum of Natural History is at Central Park West and 79th Street. For information, 212-768-5800 or www.amnh.org.