Large, bold, and by many accounts of the time, the 56-word text from the Metropolitan Museum of Art land recognition plaque, placed on its facade of Fifth Avenue in May, pays homage to the indigenous peoples of yesterday and today (mainly the Lenapes) whose institution occupies the homeland.
Visitors to the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, or one of the other museums where land recognitions greet them, may well wonder how these sentiments, crafted with extreme care and usually in consultation with Indigenous communities, agree with galleries containing about two centuries. of art depicting Native Americans as sometimes courageous, sometimes demonic and most often doomed. Not to mention their proximity to many historic celebrations of the art of Manifest Destiny in landscapes of Alfred Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and others.
This is difficult ground and the Met has been both firm and careful in its mapping: the bronze plaque has been overdue for years, while the murals by Kent Monkman, a Canadian artist from Cree origin, which welcomed visitors to the Great Hall from 2019 through April, was a bold recent commission, offering witty references to famous works in the museum’s collection.
But it is in the American wing that the intentions of a bronze plaque must manifest as something more than a signal of virtue. And here you’ll find a Land and Water Statement designed by Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purépecha), the museum’s first Native American curator and its first Native American art curator, appointed in 2020. Longer and more specific in her commitment to showcase the museum. Native American art, and its ties to both historic and contemporary Indigenous communities, the statement is mounted alongside “Scrimshaw Study,” a beautiful 2021 ceramic borrowed from the multimedia artist Courtney leonard of the Shinnecock Nation.
With its pictorial references to the local environmental history of Shinnecock, Leonard’s contemporary work is placed alongside historical material from “Native American Art.” This is a characteristically daring conservation moment for Norby, and it informs its new rotation of this ongoing exhibition of Charles and Valerie Diker’s groundbreaking collection of gifts, pledges and loans, from the 1990s. .
Norby lives for physical engagement, for those moments when she can show you how a 19th century ceramic, textile, sculpture or painting is made and how it relates to the contemporary works she has added to the exhibition. Diker. “I am interested in intergenerational and ecological knowledge embodied in the objects with which I work”, she confided to me in a rare didactic moment. By the time you have visited the gallery with her, it is already clear that the boundaries that many museums live with – historical / contemporary, native / non-native, European / native American, fine art / decorative art – are the ones she will successfully ignore.
She has been questioning boundaries since her childhood as an “Urban Indian” on the West Side of Chicago. Her great-grandparents moved there after leaving the Mexican state of Michoacán following the Great Depression and she remembers their community with great fondness. “Indians have always been urban,” she says. “There are large concentrations of Indians of various origins in all major American cities. Her parents moved to the suburb of Arlington Heights when she was in elementary school, but she continued to refer to Chicago as “coming home,” and still does sometimes.
When not at the Met, Norby, 50, is in rural Wisconsin on a six-acre farm with her husband, a vet, and their teenage daughter. They hunt, cultivate much of what they eat, and nearby is a community of indigenous women from whom she learned many beading and badge-making techniques. In her spare time, you are just as likely to find her playing the banjo or listening to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the African-American string group, reading a text on tribal sovereignty.
His references include a doctorate. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota with a concentration in Native American History, Art and Visual Culture, as well as an forthcoming book, “Water, Bones, and Bombs”, on artistic creation and environmental issues in the Valley of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. She has held positions at the Newberry Library in Chicago and the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, has won numerous awards, and has done focused work on the disposal and repatriation of cultural material.
For all of his learning, Norby is less academic in his approach to art than many curators, preferring to talk about how his MA in Printmaking and Photography informs his work as a curator. “I’m interested in what goes into making something – the physical and emotional toll. I’m not interested in which artist is hot, ”she said. “I like to see things that are deeply related to aesthetic protocols but also contain something new and fresh.”
This passion is visible from the moment you step into the new rotation of “Native American Art.” The map that initially greeted visitors delineating nine Native American cultural zones – Woodlands, Plains, Plateau, etc. – has disappeared. “There are separate homelands,” Norby acknowledges, “but there has been a lot more exchange than the maps can convey, and the maps are settlers’ ideas about native cultures anyway. “
Instead, visitors will discover two contemporary works: “Untitled (Dream Catcher)” from 2014 by Marie Watt (Seneca), a huge collection of quilted reclaimed blankets by many hands in a patchwork of native stories. It sets the stage for the remainder of the exhibition, just like the Northern traditional dance dress and accessories (2005) opposite, created by Jodi Archambault (Lakota) with family and friends which features 15 pounds of pearls and was worn in powwow dance competitions.
The spirit of community and the continuity of past and present are unmistakable in both pieces and unmistakably part of how Norby, along with Sylvie Yount, curator in charge of the American wing, made this reinstallation of the Diker equipment. While still arranged geographically, the 116 works from over 50 cultures have been reduced to 89, 29 of which are recent additions by Dikers and others.
In addition to bringing the historical work into dialogue with certain contemporary pieces, there is an invigorating change in the most common aspect of museum exhibitions, the wall label. Many labels have been adjusted or replaced with texts by artists and scholars from the source communities, erasing, for the most part, the usual hierarchy in which museum curators speak on behalf of art and to visitors.
“I myself am a visitor here,” says Norby, explaining why it is not her place to talk about the work of another community, and why it is important to turn to living people not just to talk about ‘an object, but to help dispel the aura of nostalgia that obscures our view of Native Americans.
There will be other rotations of the collection, promises Norby; perhaps the one where the works are brought into conversation with non-native art. The possibilities are many, but she assures me that the participation of the source communities will increase with each new installation. Will there also be more native visitors, as was the case when she was at the Newberry in Chicago? “It takes time,” she said, “but I have something I like to call“ Indians attract Indians ”. We always seem to find each other.
None of this would have happened without the transformative donations of Charles and Valerie Diker, collected over the past decades. From the moment their collection was first discussed, the Dikers were eager for the Met to appoint a curator for Indigenous art. Were they considering the disappearance of the map from the original exhibition or the addition of contemporary works in the new rotation? No, said Charles Diker, but “the changes freshen things up.”
“We learn from each other,” Norby says of the Dikers. “It’s about building trust on both sides. Yount echoed this, also adding that it was essential to her hiring Patricia’s “deep and long-standing commitment to building trust and inclusive relationships with Indigenous communities.”
As we walk through Engelhard Court on the way to ‘Art of Native America’, I stop in front of the Saint-Gaudens statue of a doomed and defeated Hiawatha, expecting a caustic remark or two from him about that routine piece of colonialist representation. Instead, she inspects the court and says, “Thayer Tolles does such a good job here, ”referring to the Wing’s curator of American paintings and sculptures. She goes on to express her pleasure in working with a team made up of all the women commissioners.
Norby is aware that she has arrived at an auspicious time, as the American wing has rebuilt under Yount. Founded in 1924 in the spirit of boosting colonial revival, it has come a long way since period rooms and Pilgrim furniture reigned and Indigenous art was shown elsewhere – in the Rockefeller Wing with the Arts. Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Since 2018, the works of Frederic Remington, Henry Inman, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and many others have also had, in addition to their traditional wall labels, a rotating set of what the Met calls “Indigenous Perspectives” by contemporary artists and academics. Indigenous art has also been installed here and there in the Wing Painting Galleries.
When Norby expands the presence of contemporary Indigenous art in the American wing, she will have come a certain distance to erase another border – the long-standing and peculiar four-block separation between modern and contemporary American art and the American wing from mid 17th to early 20th century art. And if she then exhibits Indigenous art in other departmental galleries, which she can’t wait to do, she will also have started realigning the museum itself with the new bronze plaque on its facade.
Elizabeth Pochoda writes for The Nation and The Magazine Antiques.