February 03, 2011

Denver museum recognizes Native artistry

Honoring Art, Honoring Artists

By Judith H. DobrzynskiWHEN the Denver Art Museum’s signature American Indian art galleries reopened last week after a seven-month overhaul, the biggest change wasn’t the new display cases or the dramatic lighting. Rather, it was in a less obvious place: the wall labels.

For the first time many of the works on display are attributed to individual artists instead of just their tribes. It is a revolution in museum practice that many scholars hope will spread, raising the stature of American Indian artists and elevating their work from the category of artifacts to the more exalted realm of art.
And:Art museums have collected American Indian objects for decades, but, like natural history and anthropology museums, they have tended to treat them as ethnographic pieces, illustrative of the cultures they came from. Wall labels have generally steered clear even of the “anonymous” designation commonly used for Western artworks of unknown authorship and in cases where Indian artists left signature marks—as Chilkat weavers of the Pacific Northwest long have, for example—this evidence has often been ignored.

Nor did the early collectors of Indian art care much about authorship. To cite one example, George Gustav Heye, whose collections form the core of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, routinely bought pieces without noting anything other than the tribe and date. But Nancy Blomberg, the curator of native arts at the Denver Art Museum, was determined to do things differently when she reconceived the galleries, choosing nearly 700 works from the museum’s world-class 18,000-piece collection. “I want to signal that there are artists on this floor,” she said.
Other voices

This approach sounds good, but a couple Natives on Facebook don't necessarily agree:We used our bluff connections to get a sneak preview of the exhibit. I thought I had seen it in the 70's. Almost all the artists use western qualifiers (abstract expressionism, big western artist's names as key influence) to explain their expression. I thought it was a beautiful exhibit that had nothing to do with Native thought of today other than marketing and design. Where is the diabetes, suicide, religious brainwashing, alcoholism, poverty, horrendous diet, loss of language and philosophical concepts, and cultural self hatred? Shouldn't a contemporary indigenous statement be directed inward and deal with real issues (other than history, romance, and design). I was ashamed for the curator. Otherwise I wish I was included in this modified craft show for my bio and perhaps new collectors our new 'Native Modernism.' Maybe someday we will relearn a bit of honesty.

Furthermore, the emphasis on artist attribution is more of a Western art thing, and not necessarily the most important aspect of traditional NA objects. It feels like it is an attempt to legitimize the work in a Western context.
Comment:  Art doesn't necessarily have anything to say about social issues such as diabetes, suicide, etc. And I'm sure many Native artists would like to be identified by name.

In short, I'd say treating the objects as art is a step forward. But other steps may be necessary for people to fully appreciate the objects.

For more on the subject, see Defying Expectations with Native Art and Native Art Continues from Past to Present.

Below:  "Left, Wild Man of the Woods mask has been attributed to the carver Willie Seaweed. Right, Jennifer Pray working on the newly reopened American Indian galleries at the Denver Art Museum." (Matthew Staver for The New York Times)

1 comment:

Rob said...

For more on the subject, see:


Unbroken Creativity

Denver Art Museum rethinks, remakes American Indian galleries


Display showcases American Indian art