Recognizing the art of Native Americans

Works express spirituality found in everyday objects

September 21, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

WASHINGTON - A rust-red Navajo blanket with lightning-slash black and white stripes created by a Native American weaver in the first half of the 19th century.

A striking whalebone sculpture of a Spirit Drummer by a contemporary Inuit carver.

A 500-year-old Mesoamerican drinking cup emblazoned with human hearts, skulls, bones and shields that symbolically represent the dark rituals of sacrifice and war.

These and other strange and beautiful artworks are a few of the more than 800,000 objects - sculpture, painting, ceramics, tools, jewelry and textiles - in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian, which opens today on the Mall in Washington.

The museum's spectacular artworks - most from the collection of George Gustav Heye, a New Yorker who began gathering the objects in 1897 - are a testament to the tremendous diversity of Native American peoples and their artistic traditions over a half-millennium stretching from the Arctic Circle to the tip of South America.

But they also symbolize the basic unity of those traditions, in which everything - people, animals, mountains, plains and sky - is connected through an omnipresent spirit that unites humanity with the universe.

"All forms of our expression tell of who we are," remarked Truman Lowe, a Native American artist and curator at the museum. "Our art is an attempt to find ourselves."

Most of the objects on display, such as the Navajo serape, the intricate beadwork and basketry of the Plains Indians, the painted and lacquered bowls of the Maya, were for years considered mere artifacts - examples of a general cultural belief system - rather than as artworks, narrowly defined as the expression of a unique creative vision.

They belonged to anthropology and ethnography, not art history.

Which raises a question: How did the artworks of the American Indian, so long considered to be mere ethnographic curiosities, come to be recognized as among the world's great expressions of the human spirit, comparable to the masterpieces of European and American art?

The answer is: very slowly.

In fact, the change in attitudes didn't really begin until relatively recently, when the landmark 1984 exhibition "Primitivism" in 20th-Century Art mounted by New York's Museum of Modern Art demonstrated beyond doubt how the so-called "primitive" arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and Native America had decisively influenced the development of European modernism.

Many visitors to that show came away feeling that the Native American, African and Oceanic artworks actually upstaged those of Europe. Gradually this recognition led to changes in museums across the country, which slowly began moving their "ethnographic" collections into their "art" spaces.

Ironically, European modernism, largely inspired by the arts of Native America, Africa and Asia, made those works visible as art for the first time, though the process took nearly a century to complete.

(One of the museum's truly fascinating temporary exhibitions, aptly titled Native Modernism, examines in detail how two pioneering 20th-century Native artists, painter George Morrison and sculptor Allan Houser, in turn adopted the techniques of European modernism to express the continuity of their own indigenous traditions.)

Yet Native American art's change in status also had an unintended consequence: While European Modernism "aestheticized" Native art by making its formal properties recognizable as qualities to be admired, it also taught viewers to see the art primarily in formal - that is to say, "aesthetic" - terms, when in fact aesthetics may have been the least part of the meaning of these works for the people who created them.

For the Native American artist, art exists primarily to give form to spirit, and there is spirit in everything one sees. Every object, therefore, is a translation of this understanding, and in that sense is sacred. There is no such thing as "art for art's sake" in the Native American tradition.

It follows that in order to fully appreciate these works one must know something of what the museum calls "our stories" - the accumulated wisdom of Native peoples passed from generation to generation through the tradition of storytelling. These "stories," in turn, almost all refer to the presence of spirit in every created thing and to the sacred bond between the people and their environment.

From the floral designs of an Algonquin birch-bark box to the intricately beaded wool textiles of the Eastern Sioux to the giant carved figures of the Tlingit people of the Pacific Northwest, Native American art is a visual representation of the ancestral "stories" that have given spiritual and ethical meaning to the life of the people.

In essence, all Native American artifacts, even the most utilitarian, are artworks in that their purpose is to teach one more about one's own spirit and its relation to all other spirits.

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