Drawing Indigenous Art and History into a More Ethical Present
Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art affixed on its august limestone façade a Land Acknowledgment, a permanent plaque outside the main entrance paying homage to Manhattan’s original and abiding Indigenous peoples.
Part of an extensive effort at the Met and other museums nationwide to publicly declare the colonial basis of their existence—which encompasses not just the ground they stand on but their collecting habits and the discriminatory worldviews they often have espoused—the new signage was preceded by a series of exhibitions, gallery interventions, special commissions, acquisitions, and staff hires, all demonstrating a fundamental shift in the institution’s relationship to America’s original inhabitants. The plaque’s installation provides an opportunity to reflect on the crucial but complicated task of coming to terms with the nation’s shameful—racist, murderous, and exploitive—history with Native Americans, and the attempts of cultural institutions to reconcile a more principled present with our checkered past.
As befitting its leadership position, the Met’s initiatives have been substantial, if not without controversy. They fall into three broad categories: efforts to increase the display and rethink the interpretation of images of Indigenous people by Euro-American artists; the enhanced exhibition of works by American Indians themselves, past and present, and the telling relocation of the former from the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas across the building to the museum’s American Wing; and, in a refreshing reversal, the invitation to First Nations artists and scholars to turn the tables and offer their own interpretation of art portraying them by white Americans.
Now in the American Wing’s grandest gallery, alongside Emanuel Leutze’s redoubtable Washington Crossing the Delaware and icons of the Hudson River School espousing Manifest Destiny, visitors can see Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse, a depiction by French-American painter Jules Tavernier of a sacred ritual among Pomo Indians of northern California, sensitively interpreted through both conventional curatorial commentary and the very different perspective of a contemporary Native artist. A few galleries away, Henry Inman’s 1830s portrayal of an Otoe chief’s daughter, Hayne Hudjihini, Eagle of Delight, hangs next to Thomas Sully’s magisterial portrait of another royal personage, the young Queen Victoria, of similar date.
Some interventions have been more provocative, as when several objects from the renowned Diker Collection of Native American art, a promised gift to the Met, were introduced in galleries otherwise devoted to Euro-American objects, leading some critics to decry the cooptation of Native arts into the broader national rubric. Which begs the question, how should Indigenous American objects relate to other American ones—enfolded, at times uneasily, into the persistently celebratory and expansionist narrative of the country’s history, or set distinctively apart and appreciated on their own as something different yet equally rich and compelling?
Even the stunning ongoing display of the rest of the Diker Collection objects, exhibited together in another suite of galleries, has occasioned criticism, much of it surrounding the removal of works from their wider cultural context and presentation within a fundamentally artistic setting, which underscores the tendency of non-Native communities to assign primarily aesthetic value to items with far-reaching social, cultural, and religious roles. On the other hand, the recent commission of Canadian-Cree artist Kent Monkman for two mural-size paintings to temporarily adorn the museum’s grand Great Hall—including an ironic, Indigenized update of Leutze’s painting of Washington—was universally admired, not least for the light hand with which it broached weighty questions of history, race, and politics.
All of which suggests that these are early days, in and beyond museums, in negotiating the sometimes- conflicting imperatives of drawing Indigenous histories and objects into a more ethical and capacious present while affording them their own just autonomy. The habitual American impulse toward inclusionary integration is complicated by the assumption of any right to assimilate those who were here before us. At Princeton University, where I work, and where our own colonialist practices go back centuries, we are currently planning a new museum facility in which we hope to dismantle not just the building we inhabited but the hierarchies it embodied. And back at the Met, the recent reinstallation of the Diker Collection by its new curator of Native American art, herself a Native American, bodes well for the sensitive display of its masterpieces, and their presentation as objects about far more than aesthetics.
As for the plaque beside the museum’s entrance doors, it is situated beneath another of similar size and appearance but significantly longer tenure. The older panel is a “Tribute to the City of New York,” which owns the vast building complex the Met has become and pays for maintenance and to keep the lights on. The juxtaposition is telling, the one plaque affirming current political realities and expressing indebtedness for governmental support, the other referencing a reality, and a debt, of a more profound kind. It makes a certain sense that the new Land Acknowledgment sits below the one to the municipality, as Indigenous ownership extends, in principle at least, much deeper into Manhattan’s bedrock.
Curiously, the new sign looks more aged than the old one, as if it has always been there, covered in the green verdigris normally acquired by bronze over many years of atmospheric oxidation. The decision to expedite the process through chemical means—not uncommon to impart a patina of age—may have been an aesthetic one, allowing the panel to appear less jarring and harmonize with the one above. But the effect also insinuates a history that the plaque and the words it bears does not have. Perhaps it should look glintingly, forthrightly new, reflecting not just the light but the similar newness of our attempt to set the record straight about our nation’s past.
Recently a more radiant bronze presence on the Met’s façade caused a sensation. In the first of the museum’s annual installations to animate the building’s impassive face, Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu produced four monumental, futuristic figures, each tucked into an empty niche between the structure’s giant paired columns. Meant to evoke the carved female caryatids of both African art and classical architecture, Mutu’s sculptures freed them of their traditional loadbearing burden, and of the metaphorical weight bestowed by gender and racial bias. In the morning, the shiny, otherworldly figures, aptly titled The NewOnes, will free Us, caught the sun, sending rays of pure light into the air.