‘Shape, contour, and respect’ — 200 years of indigenous art on view at Yale
Two wool blankets of vivid purple, red, green, and blue stretch like enormous wings across a wall at the Yale University Art Gallery. They are dotted with brightly stitched flying objects: hawks, herons, fighter jets, hot-air balloons, UFOs, even the Millennium Falcon of “Star Wars” fame.
Seneca artist Marie Watt ’96 M.F.A. made the textiles in homage to the Sky Woman — the Seneca nation’s first ancestor, who fell to Earth and was nurtured by the animals she encountered. The aircraft and sci-fi imagery recall Watt’s home in the Pacific Northwest, where Boeing is a major employer, and sewing circles she hosted while creating the textiles in Sante Fe, where hot-air balloons and UFO sightings are part of the local culture.
Watt’s pieces anchor “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art,” a new exhibition on view at the art gallery through June 21.
“Every part of the exhibition has a sight line to these textiles,” said Katherine Nova McCleary ’18 B.A., one of the exhibition’s curators. “These are monumental works and we want visitors to pay attention to them.”
McCleary, a member of the Little Shell Chippewa Cree, and Leah Tamar Shrestinian ’18 B.A. curated the show with help from Joseph Zordan ’19 B.A., who belongs to the Bad River and Red Cliff bands of the Ojibwe Nation. Its opening marked the last chapter of a multiyear journey for the three, who began working on the show as Yale undergraduates. In the course of their research, they engaged with indigenous communities and scholars across the country and in Canada while considering how to present indigenous artwork respectfully and accurately. They performed scholarly detective work, investigating the origins and makers of objects of which little was known.
It is the first exhibition to display indigenous works from the Yale Art Gallery, the Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The show features basketry, beadwork, drawings, photographs, pottery, textiles, and wooden carvings from the early 19th century to the present day, representing more than 40 indigenous nations. It presents the objects as works of art, not historical artifacts.
Watt’s textiles, “First Teachers Balance the Universe, Part I: Things That Fly (Predator)” and “Part II: Things That Fly (Prey),” which the art gallery acquired last year on the curators’ recommendation, demonstrate that indigenous people continue producing compelling art that has the capacity to inspire, the curators explained.
As its title suggests, the show is divided into four themes: Place, Nations, Generations, and Beings. It opens with a wood-splint basket made circa 1860 by a Mohegan “artist once known,” which is how the exhibit’s object labels refer to makers whose identities are lost. The curators wanted to open with work by a local artist — the Mohegan Nation is one of Connecticut’s two federally recognized indigenous nations.
The basket’s pattern of red circles surrounded by blue dots signifies the Mohegan peoples’ conception of the universe. The symbolism possesses a subversive quality, as the basket was likely sold to people ignorant of its meaning, explained McCleary, who earned a history degree and is a policy advisor on Indian affairs for U.S. Senator John Tester of Montana.
A river cane basket displayed in the “Place” section carries a complex history. It was made around 1810 by Peggy Scott Vann, a revered Cherokee figure and fierce advocate against the removal of her people to the Oklahoma territory. Vann and her husband, Charles, enslaved black people at Diamond Hill, their Georgia plantation. The names of those whose unpaid labor enabled Vann to weave baskets are listed on the gallery’s purple wall.
“We wanted to draw attention to the complicated relationship between enslaved Africans and indigenous nations in the Southeast,” said Shrestinian, who earned a degree in ethnicity, race, and migration and is a project manager at KaBOOM, a Washngton D.C.-based non-profit that builds playgrounds.
“Nations” explores art as an expression of indigenous cultural and national sovereignty. A Navajo chief’s blanket on view was prized among the Plains nations and often exchanged as a prestige item. Rather than display the garment flat, the curators had it wrapped on a form, imbuing the blanket with a physical presence. This was part of an effort to treat the works on view respectfully and as the artists intended, said the curators.
“We searched for ways to give the objects more shape, contour, and respect,” Zordan said.
In “Generations,” the curators explore the passage of indigenous art and culture from one generation to the next. A Lakota infant’s cradle and bonnet — covered in colorful glass beadwork — represents a labor of love from mother to child, McCleary said, noting that the artist likely make the objects while pregnant.
The cradle and bonnet were produced around 1890, the year that federal troops massacred several hundred Lakota people, mostly women and children, at Wounded Knee.
“Works like these show that even under duress, there are certain things that last and remain essential to the community, culture, and dignity within these nations,” said Zordan, who has a degree in anthropology.
“Beings,” the closing section, probes indigenous artists’ relationships with the natural and spiritual worlds. The winding stems and sparkling blossoms on a glass-beaded bandolier bag reference spiritual beings important to the Anishinaabe, culturally related nations from Canada and the northern United States.
“The bag is a status symbol that represents high achievement but also a lot of responsibility,” Zordan said. “It is reminder that with knowledge and well being comes a responsibility to the ecosystem and community in which they live.”
The exhibit ends, as it began, with a Mohegan object: a bowl carved from a felled maple tree by artist Justin Scott. Embedded with a wampum circle made of quahog shell, the bowl was presented to Yale President Peter Salovey in November 2017 at a ceremony marking the transfer of hundreds of objects of tribal origin from the Peabody Museum to the Mohegan people.