Finally, a Native American Exhibition in the Met’s American Wing

91 of the objects on display were gifted to the museum on the condition that they be contextualized within the framework of America’s art history

Headdress Frontlet 300.jpg
Headdress frontlet, ca. 1820–40, by a Tsimshian artist, British Columbia. The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of Native American Art, Promised Gift of Charles and Valerie Diker

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is home to an important collection of Native American artwork—from ancient stone tools to the intricate beadwork of one of the most acclaimed living practitioners of the form, Assiniboine-Sioux artist Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty. The pieces, which represent the diverse cultural heritage of a wide range of indigenous peoples throughout the ages, have traditionally been displayed in the galleries of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, but a milestone show at the Met is now seeking to situate Native American works within the broader narrative of American art.

For the first time in the museum’s long history, as Sarah Cascone reports for Artnet News, the Met has launched an exhibition of Native American art in its American Wing. Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection opens today with 116 pieces representing more than 50 indigenous cultures in North America.

The items on view were sourced from the holdings of Charles and Valerie Diker, philanthropists who have amassed one of the world’s most important private collections of Native American artworks. Some of the objects are loans, others had already been donated to the museum, and 91 were recently gifted on the condition that they “would be presented as American art rather than tribal art,” Charles Diker tells Gabriella Angeleti of the Art Newspaper. The Dikers wanted their donations to be displayed in the American Wing in order to “re-contextualize what we define as American culture,” Charles adds.

When it was first established in 1924, the Met’s American Wing focused primarily on art and architecture from the Colonial and Federal periods. The scope of the items on display has expanded over the years, but Sylvia Yount, the curator in charge of the wing, acknowledges that the Met—and other American institutions—are “really behind the curve” when it comes to displaying indigenous artworks within the framework of America's art history.

“[Visitors] go through and expect to see Native American work here,” she told Randy Kennedy of the New York Times last year. “Because often where they come from, indigenous art is part of the narrative of a nation’s art, in a way that it’s not in the United States.”

The Met, in collaboration with the Dikers, began taking steps to reframe its telling of the history of Native American art in 2016, when it displayed three items from the Dikers’ collection in the American Wing, next to paintings and sculptures that address “relevant historical and cultural themes,” the Met said in a statement. But the new show marks the first time that indigenous art has been presented in a fully fledged exhibition in the wing. Among the highlights of the exhibition are a 19th-century Tsimshian headdress, inlaid with abalone shells, from British Columbia, an early 20th-century dance mask by a Yup’ik artist from Alaska and a ceramic jar made by the famed potter Nampeyo, who lived on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona.

The Dikers first began collecting Native American pieces in the 1970s, drawn in by the artworks’ “aesthetic value,” Charles Diker tells Angeleti of the Art Newspaper. The new exhibition at the Met strives to emphasize the beauty of indigenous artworks—not as entities distinct from the story of American art, but as part of the “entangled histories of contact and colonization,” Yount, the curator, says in the museum’s statement.

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