“Tradition” is a Work in Progress
In the education area of the Denver Art Museum’s newly reinstalled Native American galleries there’s a display of objects that contemporary native artists have named as inspirations – an Incredible Hulk comic book, a guitar, an American buffalo skull, an African headdress, an eight-year-old niece’s drawing of the BP oil spill, a rosary from a village in Chiapas where Mayan ceremonies are observed in the colonial church. The touchable art supplies in the children’s activity area include deer knuckle bones and CDs. Everywhere on the museum’s second floor the visitor encounters reminders that native people are citizens of the modern world.
The objects on display include Chippewa artist David P. Bradley’s, Land O Bucks, Land O Fakes, Land O Lakes (2006), an oversized Land O’Lakes butter box retooled as a comment on consumerist society; antique souvenirs of Niagara Falls made by Iroquois beaders. A large scale painting by Northwestern artist Jaune Quick-to-See, Trade Canoe for Don Quixote (2004), visually quotes Picasso’s Guernica and the grinning skeletons of turn-of-the-century Mexican graphic artist Jose Posada. A display of paintings by contemporary painter Mateo Romero, including works from his Bonnie and Clyde series, is paired with video of the artist in his studio. Romero, who placed the Hulk comic in the education area, describes how his first experience with art was copying pictures from the comic book collection he shared with his older brother, Diego. The work of Diego Romero, also an artist, is represented by Bar Flies (1995), a Puebloan-style ceramic bowl depicting two semi-abstracted potbellied figures drinking themselves into a stupor. On another wall hangs a framed letter, written by painter Oscar Howe of Vermilion, South Dakota, in 1958, taking to task exhibiters who had rejected his paintings as “not Indian enough.”
Those looking for fine examples of more traditional arts will not be disappointed, as the 23,000 square feet of gallery space provides room for some 700 objects from the museum’s extensive collection, 650 of which are on display here for the first time. But even in these areas the viewer is reminded that “tradition” is itself a work in progress. Navajo “eyedazzler” rugs of the nineteenth century, in which brilliantly colored wools form intricate diamonds, are grouped together to emphasize the subtle formal variations introduced by individual weavers; the vivid reds, yellows, and greens which made the designs possible were the product of new chemical dyes.
The highlight of the superb Southwestern pottery holdings is a series of pots by the great Hopi potter Nampeyo, active in the early years of the twentieth century, many featuring sharp-edged yet delicate geometric motifs played off against rounder, more organic forms, a style inspired by much more ancient pots. Nampeyo’s work is now joined by a display of centuries-old pots (on loan from the University of Colorado’s Museum of Natural History) of the kind that inspired Nampeyo when archaeologists began to unearth them from abandoned village sites.
Nancy Blomberg, Curator of Native Arts, and Heather Nielsen, master teacher/head of community and family programs for Native Arts, have broken definitively with the old ethnographic model of display. In doing so they are building on one of the Denver Art Museum’s established strengths. The institution began to collect Native American arts seriously in 1925, at a time when few art museums considered them worthy of attention. In the 1930’s, Frederick Douglas, the museum’s first “Curator of Indian Art,” became known for innovative displays that included “Indian Fashion Shows” in which wearable arts from the collection were modeled by Native Americans and Denver society ladies.
It is true that the incarnation of the Native American galleries I remember from my childhood were much more traditional, recreating the “natural environment” of the objects, in a way similar to the Native American displays across town at the Denver Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature & Science). These were replaced by galleries whose open plan is largely followed by the new reinstallation. The “old” new galleries were colored a monochrome light gray that allowed the colors and forms of the objects on display to pop as they never had before, allowing the formal qualities of the art to take center stage. The current redesign features deeper shades of gray set off by warm earth tones, which work equally well. The division of display space by culture and region remains largely unaltered as well. The biggest difference is in the range of objects now on display and the heightened emphasis on contemporary contexts. I should add that the interactive media components of the galleries are mercifully discreet, not interfering with the viewer’s enjoyment of other aspects of the displays.
Old favorites are back, such as the canvas tipi painted with intertribal battle scenes by nineteenth-century Sioux artist Standing Bear, now freshly cleaned. The tipi is joined by muslin panels painted with similar scenes in the ledger-book style which once hung on the cabin walls of Captain John Robert Livermore in Fort Keogh, Montana, who commissioned the panels from local artists.
A current highlight of the galleries is a selection of contemporary art dolls on loan from the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection. The figures, most about two or three feet high and crafted from animal hide, are the work of five contemporary female artists of Native descent. They (and the horses some figures ride) are dressed in native apparel of extraordinary richness ornamented with materials ranging from shells and porcupine quills to fur and silk ribbons. The beading and feathering are painstakingly executed to scale. Many of the dolls have their own names, chosen by their creators, and these are fittingly contemporary. One warrior and his mount, by Jamie Okuma, are Preston and Skylar. Another label explains that the artist was watching the Godfather series the same summer she was working on that doll, so the figure in the case is named Enzo.