The continuing renovation and transformation of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, from a staid institution clad in nineteenth-century architecture and led by early twentieth-century aesthetics, to a state-of-the-art twenty-first-century media-tropolis of computer screens, sleek-looking galleries, and shopping kiosks, reinforces the notion, at once classical and modernist, that how art is exhibited is as important as the art itself. From the conceptually futuristic space that is Steven Holl’s Bloch addition and the bounteous Hallmark endowment of its photography collection, to the recently opened American Art Wing and the yet-to-be-unveiled Egyptian Wing (due for Spring, 2010), the Nelson is providing thoughtful, theoretical, and thematic contexts for its contents.
The newly-opened American Indian Galleries, on the second floor, replace the modern and contemporary works that never quite fit in within the plain white walls—the raucous paintings and Dan Flavin fluorescent light tubes seemed jumbled together, like all the artifacts squeezed together floor-to-ceiling in Charles Foster Kane’s estate Xanadu at the end of “Citizen Kane.”
The old Native art space, like much of the museum, was outdated: a maze with art that a visitor could easily walk through like a lobby without ever stopping to notice there was art. The three new galleries appropriately connected to the American Art Wing are perhaps a bit crowded. Yet, their glass cases, showcasing objects like the glass cases at Tiffany, offer up treasures old and new, from benefactors such as the former Nelson director Ted Coe and the prominent collectors Estelle and Morton Sosland (who also contributed greatly to the “Shuttlecocks”). Dim lighting obscures the occasional label laid at foot level, but reading here is secondary to looking at the works displayed.
Indeed, as one wall label dutifully notes, we may view the ceremonial headdresses and the baskets as art, and of course the Native Americans engaged in art, but one culture’s art is another culture’s religious and household handiwork. Fortunately, the enlightening exhibition labels, under the supervision of the Senior Curator of American Indian Art, Gaylord Torrence, issue neither warnings nor apologies for their cultural appropriation. After all, without Lord Elgin, those Roman marbles now in the British Museum might have been turned into flooring; and without the munificent Soslands, several of these beautifully crafted pieces might have simply disappeared.
The galleries make no pretense at completeness. There is a mix of tribes, from the Pueblo in the Southwest to the Tlingit in Alaska; pieces from the pre-European era intermingle gracefully with contemporary artists, such as Maude Welch’s clay Double Snake Effigy Jar (circa 1935) and the Pueblo artist Roxanne Swentzell’s “Kosha” (or clown) sculpture (1997). The organization covers the country under such rubrics as “Southwest,” “Woodlands,” “Plains,” “Plateau,” and the like; there is less attention given to the natural wilderness that undoubtedly shaped much of the Native artists’ views and tools, but then the art exists for extrapolative purposes. Clayey ground meant it was natural for the Pueblos to mold jars and bowls; a delicately carved piece in ivory and pigment, by the contemporary Inupiaq Earl Mayac, of an Alaskan hunter and a polar bear on opposite sides like one of Dr. Doolittle’s Push-Me, Pull-You’s, resembles nothing another tribal artist would probably create. The multifarious objects, colors, shapes, designs, needs, and meanings are the Native peoples’ galleries’ truest testament to art, or work, or whatever one chooses to call these beautiful things.
If the galleries allow for free flow, the objects determine their own significance and synchronicities. Basketry, so vital then and so functional—and forgettable—now in our consumer society, is shown for its truest purpose. (Think of how Apple designs its products down to the nth degree, all of which we pay extra for.) The Apaches held that imagery was meaningless. An example on view, however, can be read by the modern eye as a motif worth weaving. Baskets figured from the Plateau region tribes to the Chilcotin, up in British Columbia. Similarities occur and recur in baskets, bags, and bowls.
A Northwest Coast so-called Seal Bowl (circa 1850), made from wood and opercula shells, and its mate, a Seal Bowl from an anonymous eighteenth-century Chugach Indian, in Southcentral Alaska (one of the Soslands’ donations), both share the twin essentials of form and function, predating Louis Sullivan and the modernism of the Bauhaus school—with the extra touch of representing the seal (the label explains) “as an homage to the animal upon which the people depended so greatly.” That fundamental association—call it spiritual or merely needful—has been designed out of existence over the past hundred years to our detriment.
The Native American religious component is fascinating to many Whites: we, who integrate so little of our spiritual lives into our daily routines, must have appeared as the true heathens to Indians whose everyday existences were framed by what they wore and ate from and used, not without thinking the way many people today dress for work or pop open the subzero refrigerator or even attend services, but conscious that what they made, made them. Among the highlights are several masks, some referred to as “transformation masks” from the Northwest (made from wood, brass-plated steel, and hinges which can be opened during the ceremony to reveal a second image); a humanoid mask with brightly colored birds extruding, from the early twentieth-century Kwakwaka’wakw artist Willie Seaweed (or Hihlamas); and a glass case of fetishes: small carved animals, such as Leekya Deyuse’s Zuni bear (circa 1940), said to be imbued with the figures’ spirits.
More might have been made of contemporary artists and artisans. With so much of their civilizations destroyed—Congress still refuses to officially apologize for the federal government’s centuries’-long systematic marginalization—the fact that Native artists continue to practice their traditional arts and crafts is, as Paul Harvey used to proclaim in his radio broadcasts, the rest of the story. I was struck by Melissa Darden’s story: her well-wrought Lidded Basket (2007) is an example of her tradition as one of a very few Louisiana Chitimachan Indians to carry on the ways of a tribe as old as the Romans. She uses a knife, her teeth and her hands as her only tools. That primitiveness, combined with a sensibility for style and practicality as modern as craftsmen, couturiers, manufacturers, and artists today, serves well as a metaphor for the entire department. Make something as worthy with as little, and see what you get.