Opening: Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Press preview: Tuesday, November 13, 10 a.m. – noon
A new gallery for the exhibition of the art of Native North American peoples will open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on November 13, 2007. After three years of renovation, the enlarged gallery will display a greater number of Native American works of art than has ever before been on view at the Museum. A select group of approximately 90 works will present the art of various North American peoples, regions, and time periods in which distinct cultural, stylistic, and functional aspects will be shown. The objects range from the beautifully shaped and finished stone tools known as bannerstones that date back several millennia to a mid-1970s tobacco bag made by the well-known Assiniboine/Sioux beadwork artist Joyce Growing Thunder.
Objects to be on exhibition are drawn from the Metropolitan Museum's holdings and from the well-known American Indian collections of Ralph T. Coe of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Charles and Valerie Diker of New York, among other lenders. The first gift of Native American objects came to the Museum in 1879, when archaeological ceramic vessels – then known as Moundbuilder and originating in New Madrid County, Missouri – were given. A decade later, the Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments brought many American Indian works of
diverse origin into the Museum's collection. In the late 1970s, the Nelson A. Rockefeller collections were accessioned, forming the basis for the current installation.
The display in the new gallery will be organized by North American region and will emphasize the art of the Great Plains, located in the vast mid-section of North America, and the Northwest Coast of the continent ranging high into the Arctic along the Pacific. The peoples of the Plains, particularly those who lived in the second half of the 19th century, have come to embody the image of the American Indian in the popular imagination. That heroic image is illustrated here in various manners. Clothing, particularly the impressive, decorated animal skin shirts worn by powerful leaders as expressions of personal experience and special status, are illustrated by two examples of notable contrast. While both are chiefly embellished with porcupine quill embroidery, a unique Native American technique that consists of flattening and dying the quills, one shirt is flamboyantly hued with many added elements, while the other is restrained in color and of a well designed, austere sensibility.
Specific Plains images will be presented in two works on display, both of which date to the early 1880s. They are a book of drawings, created at the Cheyenne and Arapaho Agency in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and a Cheyenne tipi liner. The book, a chronicle of warrior deeds told through some 100 drawings, is known as the Maffet Ledger after the editor of the local Cheyenne Transporter – a journal devoted to cattlemen and Indians – who was responsible for having the drawings recorded. The primary theme of the book is the triumph of a warrior hero over the enemy, either Indian or white. There may be as many as 13 individual hands identifiable among the images, which range from intricately inked and colored depictions to more briefly sketched pencil drawings. The Maffet Ledger remained
in the possession of the Maffet family for many years, then belonged to Karen Daniels Petersen, an early authority on Plains Indian drawing, and later to the Rockefeller collection. The drawings on view will be rotated periodically.
The depictions on the Cheyenne tipi lining are of a similar type. Four superimposed, parallel rows of multiple images of war deeds adorn the cotton fabric, which has an overall length of 13 feet. Each image is an individual drama, telling the story of a Cheyenne warrior and his Indian or white enemy or enemies. The warriors are triumphant, well mounted, and fully costumed, some even carrying the shield by which a Cheyenne hero can be identified. The horses, seemingly the work of one artist, vary in color and visibility. The human figures are thought to be the work of individual artists, possibly the artist-heroes of the depicted dramas. The liner, whose intended use was to be unfurled along the inside of the tipi to display its many stories, is unfinished. It does not have the full complement of scenes in each row.
In the section displaying Native art of the Northwest Coast will be a red-and-gray crest robe of great size and presence, on loan from the Ralph T. Coe Collection. Northwest Coast crests, totemic emblems of natural and/or supernatural forces, belong to specific clans, lineages, or persons, and crest robes were worn during ceremonies in which the clan-wearer moved and glittered in the light, with the vivid red patterns flashing as the dancer moved. Made of trade cloth and commercial shell buttons, the robes are colloquially known as "button blankets," taking their name from the reflective buttons that so significantly emphasize the design contours. With the availability of trade goods, button blankets began to be made during the mid-19th century, the approximate era in which the current example was fabricated. It is a Tsimshian example from British Columbia with a bear mother as a central figure.
A transformation mask in the form of a whale, with wide open jaws and extended lateral fins, dominates the center of the gallery. Living close to the sea, the peoples of the Northwest Coast are intimately familiar with all sea creatures. Killer whales (orcas) and baleen whales are among the largest and the most feared of sea animals, and at one time became significant elements in the local belief systems. Colorful, fearsome whale masks transformed their human wearers into otherworldly beings for specific roles in the lengthy performance cycles undertaken during the long, dark months of the winter. Carved of wood, whale masks are large and heavy, virtually covering the back of the bent-over performer when worn. Activating the mask by means of cords connected head to tail, the wearer manipulated the tail up and down, flapped the lateral fins, and opened and closed the great mouth, all movements mimicking those of swimming whales. A distinctive feature of the Metropolitan Museum's mask is the large hooked-nose face in the whale's mouth.
Two vivid Kwakwaka'wakw works from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, will also be on view. One is a Crooked Beak of Heaven mask from the Hamatsa Society winter ceremonies. Tlingit and Haida masks, made by carvers further north along the sea coast, are displayed in a wall case nearby. One, probably the work of a Haida artist, is unusual in that its primary material is copper. Copper was much valued among Northwest Coast peoples, and in this instance the incised patterns of killerwhale fins on the cheeks may be a sea association that identifies the copper as wealth from the sea. The large size of the mask, the shape of the ears, and the full-toothed mouth are bearlike features, while the eyes, nose, and volumes of the face appear more human in character. The liberal amount of copper, coupled with the fur and abalone shell in the mask, suggest that it was probably an important crest object. Abalone shell inlay graces other objects on display, as well, like the detailed headdress frontlets in the same case.
Works of smaller scale illustrate the command of wood and ivory that the Northwest Coast carvers attained in objects of the most intimate detail. Daggers are topped with carefully carved pommels depicting bears or wolves. Hand-held rattles display bird imagery of complex attributes. Round rattles – about the size of a human face, with or without human features – are another type shown. A rattle with a decidedly human face, on loan from Charles and Valerie Diker, is particularly compelling. Sharp, high cheekbones give the face a skulllike appearance. The carefully outlined eyes, refined down-turned nose, well-wrought ears, wide mouth full of white teeth, and upright crown of human hair give the whole a singular intensity. The low relief carving on the back of the rattle suggests a date in the late 18th century, which would make this an early example for a Northwest Coast carving.
Wood was also a favored medium of the Native peoples on the eastern side of the North American continent. Examples in the installation range from bowls to war clubs. Northeastern wood objects are smaller and more intimate in scale, tighter in form, and more polished of surface than those found among the wet forests of the Pacific Northwest. The eastern works, of which far fewer remain, are chiefly functional objects elaborated with sculptural details. Elegantly conceived objects of wood could be made to have a wholly inelegant purpose, as for instance a ball-headed club for the Great Lakes region. The action end of the wood club is a great ball with a meaningful metal spike at the center, but the ball is clenched in the gaping jaws of a sleek, menacing otter. A well-balanced weapon, it is also a well-balanced work of art.
The Native peoples of the Northeast were the first to have extensive experience with white settlers' needs and attitudes. Eastern peoples were also the first to assimilate outside tastes and the first to incorporate imported forms into their art.
Eclectic vocabularies incorporating native materials – such as birchbark, moose hair embroidery, or porcupine quillwork – and imported forms such as traveling cases, lidded boxes, and pin cushions result in works that were highly distinctive for their time and place. By the mid-19th century the phenomenon was well established, and objects like luxuriously beaded and embroidered pincushions, the work of Huron peoples of Canada, appealed directly to Victorian tastes. Another exhibited work, a Great Lakes feathered cape, exemplifies the opposite of this development. Shaped like a pelerine shoulder covering, the small cape is thickly covered with feathers from a variety of colorful American birds. Worked in a carefully symmetrical feathered pattern, the shoulder covering is a flamboyant garment and – its 19th-century Euro-American shape notwithstanding – it appears to have been made for Native use.
Other regions of North America will be represented in the Metropolitan Museum's new gallery by ivory objects from Alaska's St. Lawrence Island and Yup'ik masks from the Kuskokwim River delta; baskets of Chumash and Pomo manufacture from California; Mississippian period ceramic vessels from Missouri; and Navajo wearing blankets from the Southwest.
The renovation and installation of the New Gallery for the Art of Native North America are overseen by Julie Jones, the Andrall E. Pearson Curator in Charge of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.
A variety of education programs will be presented in conjunction with the opening of the new gallery, which will also be featured on the Museum's Web site (www.metmuseum.org).
# # #
August 1, 2007