It’s easy to see why Native American visual culture captured the imagination of 20th Century artists like Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb. It’s an art that thrives on the abstraction of form and the enacting of performance. Through May 8, the Toledo Museum of Art’s exhibition Indigenous Beauty displays a generous portion of the private collection of Charles and Valerie Diker, including 120 artifacts and works of art that chronologically span from about 200 AD to the present, revealing how contemporary Native American artists can produce innovative work that also remains deeply rooted in a rich cultural heritage several millennia old.
Much of this art was intended to be set in motion through performance. Elaborate ceremonial wooden rattles and clappers often accompanied dances and shamanistic ritual, for example. Artist Preston Singletary creates unmistakably contemporary versions of these ceremonial rattles, drawing from Tlingit (Northwestern Coast) visual culture. His Oystercather Rattle depicts a shaman astride the back of a highly stylized oystercatcher. The oystercatcher is a shorebird that straddles the boundary between land and water, just as a shaman was expected to straddle the boundary between the physical and the spiritual. Consequently, the rattles frequently took the form of the bird, and several 19th century wooden rattles on view offer an instructive visual comparison. By working with blown and carved glass, Singletary lends a fresh look to a traditional object.
The pottery on display also responds to tradition. Some of the oldest artifacts on view, such as a Pueblo water jar from 1150, are displayed right next to the contemporary pottery of Nancy Youngblood, who works using precisely the same materials and process that many generations of Pueblo women have, having learned by watching her mother and grandmother. Like traditional Pueblo pottery, her work begins as coil pots which she then smoothes. But into their surfaces she carves a vortex of swirling ridges; these are her own invention, not derived from traditional Pueblo Pottery. In accordance with Pueblo tradition, prayer is an integral part of her creative process, and she prays over every pot and bowl she creates.
This is not a show of contemporary Native American art, though there is some on view. Viewers will also encounter original masks, textiles, basketry, weaponry, carving, katsina dolls, and illustration, mostly from the 19th Century. But in the catalogue’s forward, Charles and Valerie Diker explain that they believe American Indian art and Modern art “speak well” to each other, and suggest a strong visual parallel between the crisp, vertical form of a Pawnee Gunstock club and the reductive forms of Brancusi.
Furthermore, while Gottlieb, Pollock, and others may have been drawn to American Indian art for its abstraction, it’s also visionary in its effortless fusion of functionality and beauty. In some respects, it’s even countercultural: the overwhelming majority of images we now encounter take the form of advertisements encouraging us to indulge in the transient and the trivial, whereas Native American art’s emphasis is frequently on the spiritual and the eternal. Perhaps even the oldest Native American art is more relevant now than ever.
Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection is organized by the American Federation of Arts. This exhibition was made possible by the generosity of an anonymous donor, the JFM Foundation, and Mrs. Donald M. Cox.