Skip to main content

NMAI Presents Historic Indian 'Artifacts' as Art

  • Author:
  • Updated:

NEW YORK - Two hundred American Indian objects made between 1750 and 1920 will be on exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan April 24 through October 2005. The intentionally named "First American Art: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art" will present items from Native culture not as anthropological artifacts, but based on the aesthetic values of the (predominantly) functional objects in the collection. Masterpieces of clothing and regalia from the Great Plains and Eastern woodlands, baskets and pottery from the Southwest and California; and Plains ledger drawings will be presented so that the viewer can understand and appreciate the pieces for their artistic vision, rather than just as a piece of history.

"First American Art" will be organized according to seven different concepts of Native aesthetic systems which came from discussions with 14 contemporary artists and scholars, both Native and non-Native. Bruce Bernstein, assistant director for Cultural Resources, co-curated the exhibition with Gerald McMaster, Plains Cree, deputy assistant director for Cultural Resources.

Bernstein talked with Indian Country Today about the exhibition, which is based on the aesthetic principles the Dikers developed in displaying their collection in their home. "They have been collecting art for about 50 years, Charles Diker has been collecting art since he was in college," Bernstein said. "Once they got married they started collecting abstract expressionist art, Mark Rothko-types. In the '60s they started collecting pre-Columbian art, then around 1970 they visited the Southwest and started collecting Native art, and they have collected it ever since." Charles Diker is chairman of the board of Cantel Medical Corp. and a managing partner of Diker Management LLC. Valerie Diker is a writer and philanthropist. They are co-chairs of the board of directors of the museum's George Gustav Heye Center in New York City.

Bernstein noted that the Dikers live with the collection in their home and they do not separate the abstract expressionism from Indian pieces. "They put these great masterpieces, made by Native people, alongside masterpieces made by non-Native people," Bernstein said. "They've never looked at it any other way; they've only gone after what they consider to be great masterpieces, the real connoisseurship approach. As we began discussing the possibility of doing this exhibition they challenged the museum to do something different; to show these pieces as art, not as anthropology, not as ethnography, and to open the door so visitors can begin to understand the same concepts and have a deeper appreciation of Native art."

Bernstein said the idea of the show was to look at the apparent systems of art that exist in Native culture, rather than attempt to explain the art in western terms. "We discussed how we would go about organizing such a show; what is that aesthetic system that is within Native cultures? Is it knowable? How can we help our visitors know that system?

"As a result of that Gerald and I came up with seven aesthetic principles that we feel are in all Native art, principles around which all Native art is made; intimacy, emotion, idea, integrity, movement, composition and vocabulary."

As examples of how the concepts work, Bernstein points to "intimacy" as a principle in a muslin painting of the Battle of Little Bighorn. It was painted by the grandfather of one of the consultants, establishing a family [intimate] connection, which often happen in Native culture. The painting depicted specific warriors and what they did in battle. The artist, who was also at the battle, would gather the men around and unroll the canvas image by image and show them their own images - intimate detail shared within a circle of friends. "It's a very intimate portrait of these men's lives, it's very connected and it has emotions in that way," Bernstein said.
Highlights of the exhibition include a pair of Cheyenne baby moccasins, unusual because of beaded soles; an elaborately carved Haida raven rattle and a Mi'kmaq tea cozy, an object with European origins that was created with European trade goods and a Native aesthetic. Bernstein's philosophy on why Native art is important is simple: "If you don't know about Native art you are missing out on about 80 percent of American art history."