TOLEDO — Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection presents a conundrum of conscience. With the individual works in the collection, I can find no fault; the Dikers have a finely tuned sensibility, honed first while collecting modern art, particularly works of expressive abstraction. During a visit to Taos, New Mexico, 40 years ago, they were taken by a piece of American Indian basketwork, which blossomed into a longstanding love of the Southwest and a passion for collecting masterworks of Native art from throughout North America. The resulting assembly of objects is exquisite, presenting some truly fine examples of pottery and Katsina figurines from the Southwest, wooden masks and tusk carvings from the Western Arctic, basket making from the Great Basin and California area, and detailed clothing and domestic artifacts from the Plateau and Plains region. The high levels of skill, soul, discipline, mastery of materials, and generational knowledge at play in their making is unquestionable, and I cannot fault the Dikers for being sincerely drawn to collect and celebrate these items for their aesthetic qualities. So, too, the Toledo Art Museum — the fourth and final stop on the tour for Indigenous Beauty — and guest curator David Penney (associate director of museum scholarship at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, and one of the premier scholars in the field of American Indian art) have devoted a great deal of thought and care to the presentation of these works, to lovely effect.
Yet a contemporary awareness of the sources and histories of these art objects makes it impossible to view them without a great deal of cognitive dissonance. As is noted in the exhibition’s catalogue, the Native population of North America was estimated to be approximately 10 million in 1492, the year the continent was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus. That number was reduced to 250,000 by the end of the 19th century, as colonists swept across the land, spreading disease, claiming ancestral lands, forging and breaking treaties, and destroying the wildlife and environments that supported the existence of 550 sovereign Indigenous Nations. Though numbers have rebounded somewhat in the 20th century, with 2.9 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives counted on the 2010 census, plus another 2.3 million listing these in addition to other ethnicities, the damage wrought goes far beyond decimation. That the works on display demonstrate a profound depth of culture and artistic sensibility among these various tribes only underscores the magnitude of what we have lost.
“Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, Native cultures in North America were participating in the world global economy in many different ways,” Penney told Hyperallergic. “It’s customary to think about Native American culture as something that’s very conservative and static, but what the art demonstrates is that it’s innovative and changing, all the time.” Indeed, the glass beads that recur throughout the show — arguably a signature element of American Indian art — are Venetian glass, never made by indigenous Americans but acquired through trade, replacing older, even more laborious decorative materials such as wrapped porcupine quills. Within a display of work from the Eastern region, Penney pointed out a shoulder bag decorated with a paisley motif — a response to an au courant European fashion trend of paisley shawls. Like all artists, indigenous Americans throughout history have been part of a global conversation, and even works that we might consider traditional from a contemporary and Euro-centric vantage point were innovative art of their time.
To their credit, the Dikers do not restrict themselves solely to collecting artifacts: works of contemporary American Indian art are presented alongside their predecessors. So, a ceramic pot with coils set along a diagonal made by artist Nancy Youngblood in the 1980s sits 10 feet away from a clay pot with handpainted designs dating to the 12th century. In the section devoted to ancient ivory carvings from the Bering Strait region, several walrus tusk carvings (brown from centuries underground) are juxtaposed with a glass pipe that’s a contemporary take on scrimshaw. Among the work from the Western region — an area deeply rifted by conflict, due to the Anglo-American interest in prospecting for gold — sits a beautiful basket woven in 1907 with a “Harbor Lights” motif that was a trademark design of Washoe artist Louisa Keyser. A photograph of Keyser with the same basket hangs adjacent to the piece, one of very few allusions in the exhibit to the humans associated with these objects.
What would we lose in recognizing the humanity underlying this field of art scholarship, and what might we gain? In the farthest reaches of the Plains and Plateau section is a display devoted to the pictographic arts of the Plains, in particular the practice of documenting “battle honors” in drawn or painted form on paper or muslin. The largest piece is dated “about 1920” and rendered by a Lakota named Standing Bear; it is his account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known from an Anglo-centric view as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Said Penney: “With Standing Bear, after the battle was over, he lived in a reservation, and of course, many outsiders were interested in that battle, interested in his reminiscences. There are recordings of him and transcripts of his accounts of the battle — which is interesting, because it used to be, ‘No one survived; no one lived to tell the tale,’ but of course we had a great deal of information from the Native participants in that battle.”
Based on Standing Bear’s collected and published oral testimony, the piece appears to represent an episode just before the so-called “last stand,” when Troop C in Custer’s army had become trapped and was being attacked by soldiers under Crazy Horse’s command. As Standing Bear writes, several Federal soldiers fled on foot down a ravine, where they were killed with bows and arrows, clubs and hatchets — these figures can be seen tumbling down the center. Rather than making a panoramic overview of the battle, Standing Bear has focused on his own experiences, drawing upon a tradition that his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather may have used for battles in which they fought. Looking at the work, it becomes clear that this technique is not the kind of self-aggrandizing we stereotypically associate with warrior culture, but a form of processing; art therapy has gained much traction in recent years as an effective treatment for PTSD.
“Certainly in our present culture, men, for whatever reason, are often reluctant to talk about their experiences in combat,” said Penney. “But there is, in Plains culture, an expectation that those experiences are part of who you are, and you really need to own them, and you get a lot of support for owning them. So they’re not only occasions of drawing them on paper or muslin, but there would be public occasions when you’re expected to stand and speak of your experiences. And those who experienced them with you said, ‘Yes, that’s what happened. We were there.’ And so these kinds of histories are actually far more accurate than histories on the other side of the battle.”
Perhaps it’s a bit idealistic to hope that a survey of indigenous art can bring a more accurate history to light — or perhaps that’s a purpose to which art is uniquely suited. Indigenous Beauty has much to offer in the way of aesthetic masterworks, but the real strength of the show — and one that’s disappointingly relegated to subtext, rather than explicit representation — is dealing with the ongoing psychic and artistic cost of our country’s mass appropriation of American Indian culture.
Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection continues at the Toledo Museum of Art (2445 Monroe Street, Toledo, Ohio) through May 8.
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