05 January 2018

Art By Indigenous Peoples

[Pursuant to my recent article about my parents’ art collecting (“A Passion for Art,” posted on 21 November), I wrote a little about my father’s connection to the then-private Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.  I’ve also recently been planning a visit downtown to the New York City branch of the National Museum of the American Indian (a report on which should appear within a couple of weeks, though I’ve written on NMAI before on Rick On Theater).  These two preoccupations have prompted me to revive two archival reports, both brief, on exhibits at each of those museums that predate the start of ROT; to round out this post, I’ve added a report I never published on an exhibit of another aboriginal art collection, this time Australian, all under the title “Art by Indigenous Peoples.” ]

(NMAI-New York, 2004)

On Friday, 30 April 2004, my mother and I went down to Bowling Green to the National Museum of the American Indian.  (You may know that a new NMAI is opening later this year on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  The Smithsonian took over this private museum, then simply the Museum of the American Indian and located at 155th and Broadway, in 1989.  It moved into the former U.S. Custom House downtown in ’94.  I don’t remember when the Smithsonian started construction on the D.C. building, and I don’t know if the current collection at what’s called the George Gustav Heye Collection—named for the man who started the private museum with his own collection of American Indian art—will be moved to D.C. [it wasn’t], but the Custom House will remain a satellite facility of NMAI.) 

I caught the review of a show at NMAI just before I left D.C.—The First American Art: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art from 24 April 2004-29 May  2006 at the Heye Center—and suggested to Mom that we check it out when she was here.  Like the Maya exhibit at the National Gallery [4 April to 25 July 2004 in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; report posted on “Theater & Art,” 14 August 2014], the focus of this show is the artistic appeal of the items, not their ethnographic value. 

Of course, there are pots and bowls (including one gorgeous example of Maria Martinez’s black-on-black Pueblo pottery!), baskets, beadwork, carvings, katchina dolls, and such things that you would consider art, even though they were made for use rather than for aesthetic display, but there are also pieces of clothing, saddles and saddle bags, pouches, and other items that would ordinarily be in an anthropological exhibit.  But it was their aesthetics that was under consideration—both in the show at NMAI and in the private collection at the couple’s New York home. 

I was also surprised to see several drawings on paper—pages from books made and illustrated by Indians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, clearly under the influence—and even at the behest—of Euro-Americans.  These illustrations were of Indian subjects, of course, and from an Indian perspective.  As such, they included not only depictions of Indian ceremonies, but also of Indian victories over white invaders.  They may have taken the lead of the dominant European culture, but they didn’t cop out!  I never knew the Indians did this kind of thing—at least not until modern times when Indian artists adopted and adapted Western techniques for their own themes.

The First American Art is a medium-sized show—200 objects, but all in one room.  (There are other exhibits, part of the permanent collection, all around, of course, so there’s a lot to see if you want to hang about.  That depends, of course, on how interested you are in Indian art and artifacts.)  Much of the stuff dates from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, but there are some really old things here and there.  A couple of pots from the Pueblo Ancestors (who used to be called Anasazi until the Pueblos objected—it’s apparently really a put-down from another native culture) which were not only beautiful, but in incredibly good condition for crockery that’s over 1000 years old!  (There were also a couple of carved implements from before that—back into BCE and double-digit CE. 

American Indian stuff wasn’t made to last—it was intended to be used until it was used up.  They weren’t made of stuff that stood up against time—no metal or stone; it’s mostly pottery, wood, skins, straw.  Stuff that old is really, really rare!)  I was delighted to find a number of pieces from the Pacific Northwest—work I like very much—and there were even some Inuit/Eskimo items (even though they’re not actually Indians). 

One thing I found annoying, because the exhibit focused on the aesthetics and not the cultural implications, was that, though the items were identified by tribe/culture, there was no indication where these people lived or anything to identify them except their names.  I know some of the peoples exhibited, but many were strange names to me, and it would have been interesting to me to know what part of the country they came from.  Items were grouped strangely—not by region or tribe, not by similarity of the objects or of technique or medium/material—so I couldn’t guess who might have been close to whom when techniques looked alike.  I guess the curators didn’t think that was significant, but I was curious.  Even a map with the tribal areas marked would have been sufficient, or a note on the labels telling the area inhabited by the culture. 

Nonetheless, the objects themselves were really beautiful—many of them truly exquisite.  This show is well worth a visit (I saw a number of things I’d come back for after the place closes for the night—one of Mom’s and my fantasy “midnight shopping trips”!) and the building itself is wonderful—a terrific (re)use of an old Beaux Arts building whose original purpose has expired.  (The customs function moved out in 1973 and the 1907 building was slated for demolition.)  The Smithsonian did an excellent job turning the Custom House into a beautiful exhibit space while preserving the original interior, sort of like a ghost of the building’s past life hovering over its present.  (The southern tip of Manhattan has lots of things to explore.  It’s easily a day’s outing, and on a nice day it’s a good place to spend time wandering around the streets and parks seeking out little-known monuments and historic sites.  NMAI couldn’t be easier to get to—the exit of the Bowling Green subway station on the IRT Lexington Avenue Line is right in front of the building’s entrance.) 

*  *  *  *
(NMAfA, 2007)

On the afternoon of Thursday, 15 February 2007, my mother and I drove down to the National  Mall in Washington and checked out a small exhibit of the Walt Disney-Tishman Collection which had opened at the National Museum of African Art that day.  The exhibit, African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection, consists of 88 items from the 525-piece collection which Disney donated to the Smithsonian in 2005. 

After my father returned in 1967 from serving at the embassy in Bonn, he was introduced to Warren Robbins (1923-2008), a man who had had the same job there, cultural attaché, prior to my dad.  (Robbins had the job from 1958 to 1960; Dad had held the post from 1965 to 1967.)  When he retired from the Foreign Service, Robbins settled in Washington, and one day he read that the townhouse that had been the Capitol Hill home of Frederick Douglass, Lincoln’s Recorder of Deeds for Washington, was up for sale.  He decided it would be a shame if the house were sold and torn down or converted into a condominium, losing the original historic residence forever. 

Robbins had some family money so he bought the Douglass house without knowing what he was going to do with it at first.  He ultimately determined that it should house African art, which he himself had collected for some time, and he set about establishing the Museum of African Art in 1964, the first museum in the United States devoted exclusively to the art and culture of Africa.  Eventually, with the help of a Rockefeller Foundation grant, the MAA expanded to the nearby houses—nine ultimately—and included a display of modern Western art alongside the African pieces that had inspired them—works by artists like Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso.  (There was also a room that had been Douglass’s office in the house that was furnished as it might have been in his day.) 

My father worked for Robbins in these years on a volunteer basis as director of development, and we became very interested in African art as a consequence.  (After the expansion and redesign financed by the Rockefeller grant, the museum had a reopening gala in the spring of 1971, the time I was stationed at Fort Holabird in nearby Baltimore.  Hubert Humphrey (1911-78), the former vice president, was an honorary chairman of the museum board; Senator Humphrey—he returned to the Senate in 1970—couldn’t attend, so, attired in my army dress blues, I escorted Muriel (1912-98), his wife, to the reopening.  Now that was a formidable—and delightful—lady, in the full meaning of that word!) 

In August 1979, the Smithsonian Institution acquired the MAA and established a home for it on the Mall in an underground facility (next to the similarly-constructed Sackler Gallery of Asian Art) beside the old Smithsonian Castle.  The current museum was begun in 1983 and completed in 1987.  [I have posted an article on ROT, “The National Museum of African Art,” recounting this history in more detail on 19 January 2015.]

I hadn’t visited the NMAfA for long time, and this new exhibit sounded exciting—the Disney-Tishman collection became famous for two reasons.  The first is that, lacking a home of its own, it has often been out of sight for long periods, making it a sort of legend among African-art enthusiasts.  The second, and more significant, is that it contains some unique examples of art from the African cultures of, mostly, West Africa from Liberia to Nigeria.  The collection had been assembled over decades by New York real-estate developer Paul Tishman (If I were a Tishman . . . .) who sold it in 1984 to the Walt Disney Company.  Disney had planned to exhibit it in a specially-built facility at EPCOT Center in Florida, but that pavilion was never built and the collection remained in limbo, going out on loan (to Paris, Jerusalem, L.A., and New York’s Met) from a climate-controlled storage warehouse in California where it was available to scholars and researchers (such as the animators for Disney’s 1994 Lion King), but not publicly open to viewers on a regular basis. 

In 2005, Disney donated the collection to the Smithsonian and the NMAfA has been curating it since then.  The small sample of the collection in African Vision covers 75 cultures from 20 countries; most of the objects are from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but a few are from the 16th through the 18th centuries.  (Objects of African art, like those of Native Americans, seldom last very long for two reasons: they are made for use, not aesthetic or decorative display, and they are made mostly of perishable materials.  Very old objects are rare.) 

Some of the objects in African Vision were familiar from the years my folks were involved in the original African art museum, like the Bakota reliquary figure, a stunning stylized face of brass and wood from Gabon, and others were new to me, such as one virtually naturalistic figure from Madagascar of a warrior carved from wood and painted.  Needless to say, there are lots of masks and carved figurines, mostly of women, though they differ greatly in iconography, size, and style from culture to culture.  There are several carved doors, a symbol of status in an African village, and one carved stool, usually the perch of the headman. 

There are several pieces that clearly show the influence of European exploration, including the oldest item in the exhibit, a hunting horn from Sierra Leone carved from a single elephant’s tusk which is dated to about 1500.  Not only are there carvings of letters from the Latin alphabet, but the horn displays the coats-of-arms of both Spain and Portugal.  (It was apparently commissioned by the crown prince of Portugal as a gift for the king of Spain.)  

The most curious piece of this kind is a small 17th-century copper-alloy sculpture from the Congo of a man in a crucifixion-like posture.  The museum label explains that the cross (which is missing from this item) is a portentous design in Bakongo iconography.  The crucifixes worn by the European missionaries caught the attention of the Africans, and they appropriated the form, without necessarily the religious implication, for their own uses.  (This figure was almost certainly mounted on a wooden cross, which has been lost or decayed.)  

Among the most beautiful and intricate works, however, are the few beaded pieces, including a Yoruba crown (Nigeria) and an elaborate scabbard for a ceremonial staff, covered in the glass beads that are the frequent medium for African beadwork.  Unlike American Indian beadwork I’ve seen, the African beadwork here is not flat; it’s full of relief, some of it quite high, with full human figures and faces of both people and animals raised from the surface. 

Western artists of the early years of the 20th century discovered the imagery of Africa, but it astonishes me that the general public, even the art-consuming public, relegated African art to the realms of anthropology and ethnology rather than art until relatively late in the 20th century.  Remember that Warren Robbins’s museum, started in the last third of the century, was the first of its kind; even American Indian art had by then been long accepted as an extraordinary aesthetic accomplishment.  I remember being immediately taken with the sophistication, not to mention the pure beauty, of the pieces I saw when my parents first took me over to the MAA on Capitol Hill.  The Bakota reliquaries I saw then and the Bambara antelopes from Mali remain among the most stunning pieces of art I have ever seen still today.  How could anyone overlook that?  (Yes, I know: it’s ethnocentrism and racism—I still don’t get it.)

*  *  *  *
(Katzen Arts Center, 2009)

On Saturday, 26 September 2009, Mom and I drove over to the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center on Ward Circle to have a look at an exhibit that was of interest to my mother (John Dreyfuss: Inventions, an exhibit of sculpture by a Washington artist with whose parents and grandparents Mother had been acquainted), but which underwhelmed me, to put it succinctly.  The Katzen Center, however, had several other collections on exhibit and we wandered through the museum to see what we could see. 

Of most interest was a display called Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors (10 September-8 December 2009), on tour from the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.  (This is an abbreviated exhibit—90 works by 31 artists; the full show, which often contained included nearly twice as many artworks, toured Australia starting in 2007.)  It’s an assembly of pieces by Aboriginal artists from every state and territory of Australia.  It’s not entirely accurate to call it “indigenous” art because, like the Inuit whom I discussed recently on my blog (see “Pudlo Pudlat, Inuit Artist,” 28 September 2009), some native Australians didn’t have much in the way of decorative art before colonialism.  The works shown here, though entirely sui generis, are frequently derived from styles and techniques learned from Europeans (including video art).  The materials used are indigenous (several pieces were works on bark), though, and application of the techniques is unique. 

What is most fascinating about the collection is that all the works express some sort of political point, often about the displacement of the tribe from which the artist comes or the destruction of the habitat and environment in which the people were living.  The exhibition’s “very existence acknowledges a country’s history of state-mandated racism,” observed Jessica Dawson in her Washington Post review.  That’s why the exhibit was subtitled Culture Warriors.

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