NEWARK — At the Newark Museum, Native American artworks are no longer displayed as mere cultural artifacts of the past. The museum’s impressive collection, formerly housed in a corner of the Main Building and far from the galleries for American, 20th-, and 21st-century art, has been rehung as Native Artists of North America. Enlivened with indigenous voice, its works have been temporally unmoored and allowed to speak across time and space.
A newly commissioned sculpture by Jeffrey Gibson (Choctaw/Cherokee) titled “Come Alive! (I Feel Love)” (2016) captures the laudable shift in the display of Native American art and culture at the museum. The figure, an assemblage bedecked in rawhide, beads, jingles, and stone arrowheads, has been installed in the center of the North Wing’s main atrium. From there, Gibson’s work confronts every passerby who enters the main galleries of American art to challenge the boundaries of stereotypical Native material tradition and identity. Evoking yet sliding by multiple influences, from powwow outfits to kachina figures, “Come Alive!” foregrounds the contemporaneity and complexity of indigenous identity, putting historic works into conversation with the present.
The rehang is part of Curator of American Art Tricia Bloom’s “Seeing America” initiative, which seeks to “encourage visitors to view American art with a broader lens, incorporating the art and histories of indigenous Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants from around the world” in order to “better reflect the true diversity of the Museum’s collections and of American culture.” Situating the new Native American galleries at the beginning of the American galleries is a powerful statement and places indigenous art front and center in the reframing of a national visual narrative. But is this art being included and assimilated into a broader American lens, or does it offer a challenging counter-narrative to the colonial nation state?
The installation is an aesthetic hang, giving the works on display plenty of space and treating them like art objects, which is to say that these works are being entered into a Euro-American category to which many of them did not originally belong. It is not immediately clear how a separate gallery for Native art can reconfigure the dynamics and hierarchy of the museum, let alone American art. However, under the curatorial leadership of Adriana Greci Green (the Curator of the Indigenous Arts of the Americas at the University of Virginia’s Fralin Museum of Art), the new exhibition is a model for collaboration and co-curating a collection of Native American art and strives to avoid relegating Native art to an assimilated historical past by directly engaging practitioners, scholars, and the modern and contemporary collections of the museum. In addition to assisting in the selection and organization of works on display, the voices and perspectives of these collaborators appear in many lengthy wall texts that provide an alternative conception of the art object and the relationship of the works to the past and present.
For example, consider the text by Mique’l Dangeli (Tsimshian, University of Alaska Southeast) accompanying an aamhalaayt (Chief’s headdress frontlet), gwishalaayt (Chilkat robe), and sem’halaayt (raven rattle). Dangeli not only foregrounds indigenous language but invites viewers to consider the works not as objects, but rather as ceremonial beings which should be understood as living beings that animate through ceremony when worn and danced together. To dance these halaayt is to evoke and embody ancestral knowledge, a radically different context for such works from the glass box of their aestheticized display. The section these beings are part of, “Master Artists of the Northwest Coast,” contains historical masterworks, including a model house by renowned carver Da.a.xiigang (Charles Edenshaw) and a rattle recently attributed to the 19th-century Haida carver Sdiihldaa (Simeon Stilthda). Dangeli’s text centers such works in an indigenous perspective that recognizes them as actors participating in living tradition and knowledge.
Thus, a section of Native Artists dedicated to diverse clothing traditions does not read as a historic costume display, but rather as evidence for the connection of the past and present in the generational transfer of information and techniques. Clothing and styles from a wide range of times and places — a 19th-century Lakota hide dress, an early 20th-century Diné (Navajo) biil’éé woven dress, a 1970 seal gut parka by Yup’ik clothier Frieda Beaver that translucently shines in the light — presented in the same space refute a displacement of Native craft tradition to the past, making it accessible in the present as learned heritage. The ovoids of a button blanket by Karen Johnson (Haida) made in the 1970s don’t just resonate formally with the hereditary crest forms of a late 19th-century spruce root hat; the two reach across the centuries and flatten time through their use in potlatch feasts and dances.
Sight lines in the gallery assist with such resonant temporalities. Standing in front of a cedar Tlingit storage chest from the late 18th- or early 19th-century, carved with an ovoidal monster-of-the-box whose wide mouth is delineated by white shell teeth, one can see in another room Preston Singletary‘s “Tlingit Storage Chest” (2015), a contemporary glass variation on the bentwood box tradition. Likewise, Gibson’s sculpture in the atrium is visible not only from a display of katsina dolls, whose dancelike vigor it echoes, but also from the contemporary art galleries above, connecting Native Artists in the gallery below with the usually distinct “canonical” American art above. Works by indigenous artists like Kay WalkingStick and Fritz Scholder have been placed there in the Minimalist and Pop art displays, a good step in broadening the history of American art, but the interventions remain one-directional. Rather than bringing Native artists into the Euro-American narrative, why not turn the tables? Bring Adolph Gottlieb into conversation with the Chilkat robe downstairs to which his abstraction is completely indebted, or place Marsden Hartley with the work of the Southwest, where he spent many years, and enter those artists into indigenous histories of modernism.
The katsina dolls, vetted by Hopi collaborator Susan Sekaquaptewa as appropriate for display — unlike many manifestations of the spiritual beings — are in the predominantly Southwest portion of the exhibition that features exceptional examples of Pomo basketry. Along with Pueblo pottery and Diné weaving, such works remind viewers that the collection of “curios” by non-Natives has historically transformed such works from ritual or utilitarian objects into fine art pieces. The Pomo baskets, hanging to emphasize their decorative exteriors, point not only to the changing status of these objects but also the intersection of much of Native American art with the market, which has often overemphasized the authentic in order to fit constructed notions of Indian art and craft. To counter this, texts by Sherrie Smith-Ferri (Dry Creek Pomo-Coast Miwok, Grace Hudson Museum) explain how these baskets not only have a shifting status among the Pomo, but also, as photographs of the weaving process demonstrate, are still part of a living tradition.
Where the Newark Museum must strive to improve is to turn a decolonizing lens on itself, particularly by revealing its opaque collecting process. The legacy of salvage anthropology and the complicity of museum collecting in colonial oppression must always be confronted, and it must be made clear that the colonial legacy continues. The exhibition could make more explicit how the works in Native Artists entered the museum’s collection, particularly when the collecting history ties the works to important local narratives. For example, watercolors by San Ildefonso Pueblo artists Tonita Peña, Awa Tsireh, Julian Martinez, and Fred Kabotie (Hopi) were gifts of Amelia Elizabeth White, a major proponent of the “traditional” style of Southwest painting. White was one of the sponsors behind the 1931 Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts at the Grand Central Galleries in New York, which introduced such paintings to a broad public, and the works tie this local New York connection to the broader history of the reception of modern indigenous art in America. Kabotie’s “Kachinas Distributing Gifts” (ca. 1930), an exceptional example of the modern style that would evolve into the “Studio School,” uses Western pictorial conventions to depict figures in bold white and orange costumes who seemingly walk toward the viewer out of an empty ground. The paintings also connect with the pottery on display; a 1925 jar by master potter Maria Martinez in her signature “black-on-black” style features an avanyu water serpent design painted by her husband Julian Martinez, reprised in a later watercolor on the wall.
Despite its conventional, aesthetic hang, the effort by the Newark Museum and the curators in this reconsideration of its Native American art collection are commendable. The most significant inclusion may be the inclusion of contemporary Lenni-Lenape work to acknowledge the people on whose traditional territory the museum is housed. In response to the lack of Delaware work and material in the collection, a Manetuamimi (Spirit-Dove) wampum belt by John Smiling-Thunderbear Norwood is on short-term loan to the museum, giving presence to the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape. Wampum belts are used by many tribes and nations to seal treaties and to record important historical events. Bloom hopes to replace it with the acquisition of a Delaware work in the near future and by continuing to engage local communities and indigenous voice, the Newark Museum will hopefully uphold its wampum and continue to think critically about its Native American collection.