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Friday, June 9, 2023

Native American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston


For the first time in its long history, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has a gallery dedicated to the display and interpretation of the magnificent arts of Native Americans. The new gallery presents a broad overview of the diverse works of art created by Native Americans across the continent from ancient times to the present day. Many rarely seen textiles and other light-sensitive objects will be displayed for the first time, with additional examples going on view in rotation in the future. Centrally located in the new Art of the Americas Wing, the Native American Gallery is situated next to galleries devoted to the arts of ancient Central and South America, presenting a long sweep of the arts of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

The gallery represents only a fraction of the artistic traditions of the “five hundred nations” often grouped under the all-embracing (but misleading) term “Indian.” The works of art here include examples from most areas of the continent. Large cases in the center of the room contain a survey of Southwest pottery and jewelry, as well as baskets from several regions, while other areas are devoted to objects created by diverse regional and cultural groups. A particular strength of the gallery is a generous selection of the museum’s collection of historic and contemporary pottery from many of the pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona.

A significant number of modern works in many media are presented in the gallery. As those objects indicate, Native Americans are working actively in both traditional and contemporary modes. Today’;s artists feel a close kinship to their ancestors and often discuss the connections of their work to ancient prototypes, thus recognizing the continuum while simultaneously demonstrating the vibrancy and vitality of the modern Native American experience. As the twenty-first century progresses, Native American artists will undoubtedly continue to encounter many challenges, each identifying a unique formula to balance the on-going pressures of weighing continuity versus change, of seeking freedom from tradition as well as freedom within a tradition, of establishing an individual voice within or without a group identity. Cultural critic Paul Chaat Smith (Niuam [Comanche]) has noted that Native Americans’; “true history is one of constant change, technological innovation, and intense curiosity about the world.” That description of the past will no doubt serve equally well for the future, as Native Americans continue to make valuable and creative contributions to visual culture.

Although the museum collected Native American art in the late nineteenth century, institutional interest in the material slackened for much of the twentieth century. In the mid-1980s, the museum renewed its collecting of Native arts, recognizing their aesthetic qualities as well as their ethnographic importance. Today, Native American materials are collected by five curatorial departments, and will be displayed throughout the museum from time to time as well as in the dedicated space in the American Wing.

Selecting the objects for the gallery was an exciting process of rediscovering works that in some cases had been slumbering in storage for many years, as well as acquiring new objects in order to provide a more well-rounded presentation. The works discussed here are, for the most part, recent gifts from generous collectors who have helped build the museum’;s holdings, which we are constantly striving to expand and improve.

Shot pouch and powder horn, possibly Lenape (Delaware),
Eastern United States, early 19th century.
Wool twill trimmed with glass beads, horn.
(2008.1459.1) L. 28 in., W. 7½ in.; (2008.1459.2) L. 29 in., W. 6 ½ in.
Gift of Tim Phillips (2008.1459.1-2).

The shot pouch and powder horn were introduced when Europeans brought guns to the New World. On the East Coast this occurred almost as soon as the Dutch and English arrived in the first half of the seventeenth century. Lavishly decorated shot bags were probably made as gifts and not for everyday use. The provenance of this bag suggests this is the case here. According to family history, a Lenape hunting guide gave the shot pouch and powder horn to Nathaniel Hurd, a merchant of Frederick, Maryland, who often hunted in the Allegheny Mountains with the guide. The materials and decoration of the shot pouch support the provenance. The use of wool trade cloth and the decoration of fine white beads with a “picot” or lace-like edging appear to be consistent with Lenape practices at the time. Several Lenape women’s leggings collected by Erastus Tefft (who, according to a New York Times article of December 27, 1907, was said to have the most complete collection of Native American artifacts in the world) are similar in execution and style. Tefft’s collection was purchased by the American Museum of Natural History in 1910.

Rick Rivet, Métis (b.1949), String Game—2 (Kayaker), 2001.
Acrylic on canvas, 42 x 42 inches.
Gift of James and Margie Krebs (2009.4342).

Born in the Canadian Arctic, Rick Rivet is descended from the Métis, a distinct cultural group that grew out of the intermingling of European and Native peoples in the early days of colonization. He was raised in a family of hunters, trappers, and fishers, eventually earning his MFA from the University of Saskatchewan. As he notes, his work “aspires to the spiritual, to the recovery of the main tradition of creativity. The encounter with shamanic ideology and culture compels the contemporary artist to admit to the binding ties of a common spiritual heritage.” This is one of several paintings in which Rivet explores the forms created by string games, evoked here by the white lines in the center of the canvas. Children all over the world play string games—cat’s cradle, for example—making these a nearly universal human experience. Rivet also invokes the cardinal directions with the words “North” and “South” at the top and bottom of the painting, transforming the canvas into a map-like space. At the top left, the pointed white shape suggests the form of the kayak mentioned in the title as seen from above or below.

Carrying basket or coiled pack basket, Lataxat (Klikitat), Columbia River area, Washington, about 1890.
Coiled cedar and spruce, bear grass, wild cherry bark, horsetail or dyed cedar bark. H. 12 in., Diam. 10¼ in.
Gift of Arthur Beale and Teri Hensick (2008.1503).

Baskets made by the Plateau peoples of the mid–Columbia River area of the state of Washington are among the finest examples of Indian art produced in this country. This sturdy carrying or pack basket, used for gathering huckleberries, is attributed to the Lataxat (Klikitat), who live on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains north of the Columbia River. This example is fashioned of coiled cedar and spruce, completely imbricated with bear grass, wild cherry bark, and horsetail or dyed cedar bark. The imbrications (overlapping of the edges in the design) creates the tile- or scale-like appearance of the exterior. The traditional design on this basket has been identified by modern makers as the “geese in flight” pattern, so named by their ancestors.

Horse’s headstall, Diné (Navajo), Arizona, about 1875-1900.
Silver, leather, H. 25½ in., W. 17½ in., D. 2 in.
Gift of Ruth S. and Bertram J. Malenka and their sons,
David J. and Robert C. Malenka (2008.203).

The Diné (Navajo) learned silversmithing from Mexican plateros working in the Southwest during the second half of the nineteenth century, probably in the late 1860s or early 1870s. The raw material for their craft was usually obtained by casting Mexican and American coins into a melting pot; turquoise elements were also often used as highlights on their silver products.This horse’s headstall is one of the characteristic Diné forms made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, along with concha belts, ketohs, squash-blossom necklaces, bracelets, rings, and other types. Fashioned from commercial leather, the side pieces of the headstall are sheathed in part in silver, including a concha (a round, shell-shaped ornament) with stamped decoration, and have silver strap ends that curve upward. The so-called cloud-shaped brow or crosspiece has both stamped decoration and rocker-engraved detail on its plaques. An ornament, probably a crescent-shaped naja was originally suspended from the loop located on the browpiece at its center.

Edna Romero (Santa Clara, born in 1936),
Water jar (Olla), Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, 2001.
Micaceous clay, H. 12½ in., Diam. lip 8¾ in.
Gift of the Bardar Collection in honor of Ruth S. Malenka (2001.822).

Although the museum has a strong collection of Native American pottery from the Southwest, the holdings include only a few examples made of the glittering micaceous clay favored by the potters of several of the northern New Mexico pueblos. Edna Romero, originally from Santa Clara, is a member by marriage of the extended Naranjo pottery-making family of Taos, which has some of its roots in Santa Clara.This water jar is a thinly walled, beautifully formed vessel distinguished by its carefully modulated surface and elegant shape. It was acquired directly from the artist by the donors at Indian Market in Santa Fe in August 2001. Indian Market, organized by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts and held each year since 1922, provides an important opportunity for many Native American artists to market their wares to collectors and to receive recognition for their work. Romero’s pottery has received awards at numerous Indian markets and other Southwest art fairs.

Chilkat dancing blanket, Tlingit, Southeastern Alaska. Early 20th century. Twined wool and cedar bark, vegetal dye. H. 45 in., W. 65 in.
Museum purchase with funds donated anonymously (2008.650).

Members of the Tlingit of the Northwest Coast wore intricately patterned shoulder blankets with a long fringe for ceremonial dances and during the potlatch. The blankets symbolized the wearer’s high status within the community, and upon death the owner was often buried wrapped in the blanket, or it was hung outside the grave. Typically, clan crests depicting stylized animals such as whales, beavers, and bears are featured on the blankets. Here, the crest represents a diving whale, one of the more common designs found on such blankets. This example is remarkable for the intensity of its color, as the traditional dyes used in these blankets are very fugitive and normally fade relatively quickly when exposed to light. Such vibrant colors may be an indication that this example was made for trade and purchased soon after its completion.

Stan Natchez (Shoshone/Paiute, born in 1954),
White Buffalo—We the People, 1997.
Acrylic and collage on canvas. H. 48 in., W. 58 in.
Gift of James and Margie Krebs (2006.1925).

The buffalo has important symbolic resonance for many contemporary Native American artists, both because of its significance in traditional Plains Indian culture and because, more recently, the species has begun to flourish after near extinction. Here, Natchez, by descent a Shoshone-Paiute, creates an explicit relationship between the buffalo’s body and the historical images of Native people collaged within it. Natchez refers in the painting’s title to white buffalo, animals that are extremely rare and are considered sacred by many Plains Indian cultures. The title also evokes the figure of White Buffalo Woman, highly important to several Plains peoples, who is said to have taught the Lakota to pray. White Buffalo Woman, during an appearance on earth, also taught the people how to use the buffalo to sustain them; then, as she was departing, she promised to reappear one day and restore the earth to harmony. Combined with the phrase “We the People,” this reference suggests an ultimately hopeful vision of our collective future.

Nathan Begaye (Hopi-Diné [Navajo], born in 1969),
Squash Maiden vessel, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2002. Earthenware with slip paint, beads.
H. 14⅛ in., W. 5¾ in., D. 5½ in.
Gift of James and Margie Krebs (2006.1911).

One of the most innovative and freewheeling contemporary Native American potters, Nathan Begaye was born in Arizona to a Diné (Navajo) father and Hopi mother. After a rather conservative family upbringing near the Hopi Third Mesa in Arizona, he studied pottery at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe and then in the distinguished ceramics program at Alfred University in upstate New York, where he worked with studio potter Wayne Higby. Begaye’s extraordinary pottery is noted for its eclecticism; he draws upon the full range of Native American motifs and designs to create a wide variety of objects that almost always have an air of humor and wit about them. He is as interested in sculptural form—including the human form—as he is in the more typical Native American art of painting. As Begaye developed this vessel, he selected a subject from his Hopi background, a young maiden, adorned with bead necklaces, and with her hair coiled in the typical Hopi “squash blossom” or “butterfly” mode adopted by young girls of marriageable age. An air of sensuality or eroticism is not uncommon in Begaye’s pottery; it is one element of his work that places Begaye apart from many modern Native American potters.

Water jar, Acoma, Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, about 1930-40.
Earthenware with slip paint. H. 11½ in., Diam. 15 in.
Gift of James and Margie Krebs (2006.1913).

Acoma, also colloquially known as Sky City, is one of the most magnificently sited villages in the world, perched high atop a towering mesa in central New Mexico. Inhabited for at least a thousand years, it is also one of the oldest continuously occupied communities in the United States. Acoma’s geographical and physical isolation provided its inhabitants with a degree of independence that allowed them to retain a largely preindustrial traditional way of life well into the twentieth century. Acoma pottery, such as this twentieth-century example, has been made for centuries from a deposit of locally dug clay. The inherent plasticity of this natural material permits the potter to fashion lightweight vessels with thin, hard-fired walls that can accommodate a precise painting style, evident here and on many examples from Acoma.

Joe David, Nuu-Chah-Nulth (Nootka), born in 1946, Loren White, born in 1941,
Took-beek. Dayton, Oregon, 1982. Painted red cedar. H. 74 in., W. 24 in.
Gift of Dale and Doug Anderson in honor of Ron and Anita Wornick (2005.373).

Totem poles and house posts from the Northwest Coast are firmly entrenched in the public imagination as one of the characteristic forms of naïve American art. Made for a variety of purposes, some examples tower more than fifty feet high. The images they bear, carved on red cedar logs, typically represent clan symbols, such as Raven, Bear, Eagle, or Killer Whale. The art of totem-pole carving has been revived by a number of artists in the Pacific Northwest, including Joe David, who carved this totem with the assistance of Loren White. David has been immersed in the contemporary Northwest Coast art movement since 1969, creating works of art in a variety of media and participating in many aspects of Native American life. David titled this work Took-beek (Sea Lion Hunter), a treasured name in his family.
Bowl, Mimbres, Mimbres
River Valley, southwestern
New Mexico, 1000–1150.
Earthenware with slip paint; Classic Black-on-white, Style III. H. 4¾ in., Diam. 11¼ in.
Museum purchase with funds donated by the Seth K. Sweetser Fund and Supporters of the Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture (1990.248).

Only about one-fifth of surviving painted Mimbres pottery is decorated with images of animals, birds, insects, or humans; this example features two animals—resembling fat quails—circling the bowl from left to right around the puncture known as the kill hole. Beautifully painted, Mimbres pottery clearly embodies the worldview and philosophy of its vanished creators. However, the Mimbres culture remains frustratingly mysterious to us, due to the absence of written records and the fact that many Mimbres vessels lack any archaeological context.

Gerald W. R. Ward is the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and co-author, with Pamela A. Parmal, Michael Suing, Heather Hole, and Jennifer Swope, of  MFA Highlights: Native American Art (Boston: MFA Publications, 2010). Generous support for that publication was provided by Arthur R. Hilsinger and Barbara J. Janson, to whom we are most grateful.