“Native history and American history are inseparable,” reads projected text on the wall of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing. “It is a rich history, as inspiring as it is terrible, and it belongs to all of us.”
Those two meditative sentences lead viewers from the entrance and into the interior of “Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection,” a history-making exhibition for the 148-year-old institution. The 116-piece collection marks the first time Indigenous artwork has been displayed in The Met’s American Wing; traditionally, pieces of Native origin had been housed within its galleries for Africa, Oceania and the Americas.
The collection is the result of a sizable gift from collectors Charles and Valerie Diker, who conferred the precious artifacts on the condition that they be presented as part of American history and not as “tribal art.” Housing them within this new, more appropriate, context ensures that the pieces cannot be separated from the atrocities inflicted against their makers. To consider the beauty of one object, a person must also consider its place in America’s ugly and shameful history of colonization.
“The presentation in the American Wing marks a critical moment in which conventional narratives of history are being expanded to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of cultures that have long been marginalized,” Max Hollein, The Met’s director, said at the Oct. 3 opening reception. He went on to credit the museum with “forever transform[ing] The Met’s ability to more fully display the development of American art, enabling an important shift in thinking.”
Major artistic art forms are represented, including paintings, drawings, sculpture, textiles, embroidery and a stunning array of bead work. The pieces, which range from the 2nd to early 20th century and claim origins in more than 50 distinct cultures, have been loosely organized by geographic areas: Woodlands, Plains, Plateau, California and Great Basin, Southwest, Northwest Coast and Arctic. The layout encourages visitors to move through the gallery fluidly rather than explore it in a more linear, bordered fashion.
“There is an overall openness and permeability that was really intended to communicate the overarching worldview of Native Peoples,” explained Gaylord Torrence, a guest curator at the museum.
Among the highlights include an arresting War Shirt created around 1890 in Montana by Crow artists. Made of tanned leather, glass beads, pigment, wool cloth, ermine, human hair and feathers, the shirt resembles the spread wings of an eagle. A shoulder bag and moccasins that date back to 1830 Muscogee tribes in Georgia or Alabama are notable for their dense and intricate floral motifs made out of minuscule glass beads. Meanwhile, the exhibition’s large collection of pottery and sculpture is equally impressive, displaying a virtuosity far removed from primitive stereotypes.
“Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection” took two years to curate (“Very fast in Met time!” said American Wing curator Sylvia Yount) and received help from historians and Native American scholars. The exhibition will be on view until October 6, 2019. Check the website for more details.
Top Image: Top Image: War Shirt, 1890, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of Native American Art, Gift of Valerie-Charles Diker Fund, 2017