When Marabou first heard about the Metropolitan Museum of Art finally making moves to display Native American art and objects in the American Wing (previously, and presently, Native American objects are on display in the Hall of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas), they were excited and curious to see the Met’s curatorial approach. “Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection” opened at the Met on October 4, 2018. After visiting the exhibition and attending a lecture with the collectors Charles and Valerie Diker, Marabou has mixed feelings. On one end, “Art of Native America” displays art and objects from indigenous nations of the present-day United States and Canada as art, not curiosity, and places each work in cultural context provided by Native scholars. The exhibition design communicates that the objects on display are to be valued and esteemed. On the other end, there is still a lot that goes unaddressed regarding the history of native-settler relations. These glaring omissions are troublesome especially considering that all the objects were made between the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, years wrought with ongoing dispossession and violence against Native communities by Europeans and Euro-Americans. For Marabou the exhibition exudes a very strong undertone of white ownership and right to these Native objects. The subtitle alone, “The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection,” reminds visitors that these objects–representing and formerly belonging to over 50 indigenous communities–have been collected by a rich, white couple. Although it is a common exhibition naming convention to include the name of the collectors who own the objects, Marabou wonders about the importance of including the Diker name in what the Met calls a “landmark” exhibition that is the “first significant display of Native art in the American wing, established in 1924.”
The exhibition is located on the first floor of the American Wing, just off the sculpture courtyard and next to the neoclassical bank facade. The gallery walls are painted a light dove grey and objects are mounted on the wall or free-standing, allowing 360-degree viewing, in glass vitrines. Ample space is given to each object, there is no sense of crowding. Informational text is applied to the wall in black vinyl lettering. The design is minimal, letting the objects be of focus. 116 objects are on display and geographically categorized into seven regions across present-day Canada and the US. At both entryways to the exhibition, the Met acknowledges that the building stands on Lenape land and pays its respects to “Lenape people–past, present, and future–and their continuing presence in the homeland and throughout the Lenape diaspora.”
The exhibition’s introductory text states that the art on display was created “against the backdrop of Euro-American colonialism,” but does not go into further explanation. Visitors will not find a lot more explanation as they move through the galleries. The text concludes with acknowledging Charles and Valerie Diker, describing them as “pioneering collectors.” This made Marabou cringe. Pioneering? Of all words to describe wealthy white people who have collected Native American art. The Met tells its visitors that the Diker’s loaning and donation of these objects for public view is a benevolent act, “Their belief in the potential of these objects to broaden historical, cultural, and aesthetic understanding inspired their generosity.” Accompanying the undertone of white ownership is a sense that the Dikers feel that visitors and Native communities should be thankful for the donation, but more on that later.
The style and content of the exhibition wall text and labels suggest that the Met is rethinking how Native objects should be spoken about and who should be talking about them. In the introduction to each geographic region, there is wall text written by a scholar from an indigenous community. Each regional wall text has one paragraph that explains the geographic, material, and cultural context for the objects to follow. The second paragraph is in italics and describes historical context, particularly native-settler relations. Marabou appreciates that the Met recognized that a representative from an indigenous community within each region should serve as the voice of authority. In addition, it’s great that the Met is sharing a more truthful perspective on American history–that colonization was violent and ugly. However, the real-talk of the italicized paragraphs runs a spectrum. On one end there are texts that reflect a “there we said it” mentality, acknowledging what happened, but not fully explaining circumstances and leaving the reader wanting more. For example, the italicized text for the Northwest Coast by Joshua L. Reid (Snohomish), an Associate Professor of History/American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, says:
“The appearance of non-Natives on the Northwest Coast beginning in the late seventeenth century brought both opportunities and challenges. Many people benefitted from the maritime and land-based fur trades that generated new sources of wealth and status. However, disease and violence accompanied these entanglements. The pressures of settler colonialism came into the Northwest Coast in the mid- to late eighteenth century, later than in parts of eastern Native North America.”
Although this paragraph speaks truths, the language is polite and may not have a big impact on the reader. Marabou would have appreciated if the Met had explained somewhere, whether in the introduction or in supplemental information about the exhibition, what settler colonialism is – a system of replacement and erasure, not cohabitation. Stating and explaining this would 1) help visitors understand why Native art and culture has been ignored and consciously left out of what is defined as “American Art” and 2) reinforce why this is truly a “landmark” exhibition. The Met should not assume visitors know what settler colonialism is, nor should it speak politely about the atrocious actions of settlers against Native populations. In contrast to the polite language used for the Northwest Coast, the regional text for California and Great Basin by William Bauer (Wailacki and Concow, Round Valley Indian Tribes), Professor and Graduate Coordinator, Department of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, uses direct language that gets to the point. His italicized text reads,
“Beginning in 1769, Native peoples of California and the Great Basin faced waves of Euro-American invasion. Forced labor and genocidal violence occurred. Euro-Americans brought livestock into the region, destroying food sources as well as the plants used to make baskets. Native peoples survived, often by working on farms and raches. They reclaimed lands and initiated new religions, such as the Ghost Dance.”
Throughout the exhibition, text vacillates between polite language in some contexts and straightforward language in others. One example of polite language clouding an opportunity to speak honestly about native-settler relations is on the label for a “Portrait Figure” by a Haida artist, made around 1840.
The label says the carved, wooden statue portrays a Haida woman who “wears a pleated cotton dress and holds what appears to be a wafer” and that the woman likely would have acquired her garment on a trip to Victoria, British Columbia, 500 miles from her homeland. “The wafer may refer to the Christian Eucharist, perhaps symbolizing her religious conversion.” This sculpture communicates a cultural shift: a change in dress from Haida to European style and conversion from Haida spirituality to Christianity. Marabou is frustrated that the Met didn’t go a bit further and explicitly say how colonial invasion meant that indigenous communities were told that their ways of being were wrong. Why not pose a question to the viewer and ask, “What might the artist be communicating by carving a Haida woman who has possibly converted to Christianity and is wearing European clothes?” The Met could at least encourage visitors to think about what these objects represent in greater cultural and historical contexts.
Another frustrating section of writing is found in the Arctic wall text which says “Starting with the arrival of Russian fur traders in 1741, Alaska became the site of colonial explorations and exploitation. Colonial powers–Russian, French, Spanish, and British–brought deadly diseases as well as alterations to economic, political, and spiritual practices.” Marabou does not like the choice of “alterations” – particularly in relation to spiritual practices. Economics, politics, and spirituality are not pieces of clothing that need to be tailored, these three elements shape a way of life. Colonial forces disrupted indigenous ways of life and attempted to erase established ways of being. As Marabou has said in previous posts, word choice is important. The Met had an opportunity for this exhibition’s text to pack a history-reality-check punch, but chose a more passive voice. In addition to advising with Native scholars and including more honest historical context for the objects in the exhibition, the Met is also thinking about gender and more accurately acknowledging an object’s maker. On the object labels, Marabou saw a number of instances where the maker was referred to as “she,” acknowledging artistic mastery and contributions of women within different indigenous nations. Although the exhibition’s text is not consistent in tone and language when asserting historical truths and the uglier parts of American history, there is a marked shift compared to labeling in other parts of the Met.
The gallery texts support the exquisitely beautiful objects on display. (Charles Diker, during the lecture following the exhibition’s opening, said that his collection of Native American objects is different from other collections because of their aesthetic quality. On this point, Marabou can agree.) Almost all are in pristine condition, even those that are over 250 years old. Although it is inspiring to see these objects close to their original state, there were many times Marabou felt uncomfortable and questioned the ethics of presentation and acquisition processes. Overall, for every object, Marabou had a big problem with provenance (record of an object’s ownership). For every object in the exhibition, the provenance is listed as either from the collection of, a gift of, or on loan from Charles and Valerie Diker. That’s it. The lack of any detail in provenance sparks questions about acquisition methods. How did the Dikers acquire these objects? Valerie and Charles have said they worked mostly through dealers. Why not list the dealers? From whom did the dealers acquire the objects? Are any of these objects stolen? Are any of these objects sold under duress? When understanding use of some of these objects, Marabou can’t help but wonder if the beautiful objects on display were indeed stolen or handed over/sold under pressure.
The first object that made Marabou question the means of acquisition was a War Club by an Anishinaabe artist, probably Ojibwa, that dates to 1750. It is wooden and carved to portray a stylized bird holding a ball in its mouth. The label mostly celebrates the craftsmanship of the club, its “elegance of form, restrained abstraction, and a union of proportion and function,” and mentions that the abstracted animal represents “likely the owner’s guardian spirit.” In what circumstances would an object that is for warfare and an embodiment of a protective spirit be separated from its owner? Made during the colonial period, was the war club stolen? Given as a diplomatic gift? Randomly found?
A second object that made Marabou go “Hmm” was a Tlingit Shaman’s Mantle from Alaska dating to 1800. The label explains, “The imagery came from the shaman’s dreams and visions, and the mantle protected him from malevolent forces…” Other sacred objects like a shaman’s amulet and a soul catcher (used to “recover lost souls of [a shaman’s] patients taken away by shamanic ritual or witchcraft”) are also on display. The same questions apply. Why would a shaman or their community part with sacred objects like the mantle or soul catcher? Was the community in need of money so they sold some of their most precious items? If so, what circumstances created economic strife?
A third object, a Chugach mask from 1860, sparked questions about display ethics for Marabou. The label says, “Chugach masks are typically destroyed, hidden, or buried with the deceased, therefore the existence of this example is unusual. Masking traditions paused with the arrival of missionaries in the nineteenth century, but since the 1980s Native communities have brought back the practice of mask carving…”
After reading this Marabou felt uncomfortable. Why would a mask that is not meant for public display be on view in a New York City exhibition? The label states this mask is unusual, implying that it is a special opportunity to see one in real life. However, what is the tipping point between sharing a culture and its practices and exploiting it? Questions about ethics and acquisition do not apply to all the objects in the exhibition, some were clearly made by indigenous artists to be purchased. But for those that were not meant to be purchased, such as sacred or burial objects, what is the right thing to do? Marabou is left with many questions after leaving the exhibition. Marabou attended a lecture with Charles and Valerie Diker on October 5, 2018. The questions sparked by the exhibition were not answered by Charles and Valerie, if anything, the lecture raised more concerns.
The lecture with Charles and Valerie was moderated by Gaylord Torrence, a guest curator of the exhibition from the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The first half was dedicated to Charles and Valerie–but mostly Charles–sharing how they got started collecting Native American art. Marabou learned that the couple have been married for 59 years and collecting art for 45. Charles went to Harvard Business School and has made his money, from what Marabou has researched, in the medical industry and finance. Initially the couple collected contemporary art in the 1960s and then fell into collecting Native American art. As mentioned previously, Charles stated, “aesthetics are the key in what makes the collection different,” he considers it a collection of masterworks. Early on Charles stated that aesthetics, not ethnography, were of importance as they acquired objects, but later Valerie made sure to say that ethnography was also part of their methodology, that it was important to learn the cultures of the objects. Charles noted that the design elements of nineteenth-century Native Art are very exciting, but did not address the historical backdrop of displacement and removal experienced by the people who made the objects. A lot of what Charles and Valerie discussed was their good intentions and, from their perspective, ethical collecting practices. Charles stated that their donation of these objects and this exhibition is a “beginning of this museum’s effort to build relationships with native peoples and the collection here is going to the the foundation for that to occur, for all types of exchange to take place, and for Native Americans to have voice in this institution.” Valerie concluded their comments before opening up to questions with the following statement,
“We feel how broken the world is these days and how much we all hope there are certain ways to mend it. And we think in some small way, bringing our own Native Americans to the finest museum in the country, and perhaps in the world, in a very upstanding and natural way may be one way to heal parts of the broken world.”
Once the floor was opened, questions were asked about provenance and inventorying objects that fall under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) – a “statute requires Federal agencies and museums to provide information about Native American cultural items to parties with standing and, upon presentation of a valid claim, ensure the item(s) undergo disposition or repatriation.” One man asked if the Dikers had ever considered interpreting the objects through a lens that places the objects in the context of colonialism, because that history was something he thought about a lot when walking through the galleries. Obviously the couples’ explanation of their collection left a lot to be desired.
Emily Johnson from the Yup’ik nation in Alaska stood up to comment and ask questions relating to issues skirted by Charles and Valerie in the first half of the evening. Her words are as follows:
“I’ve enjoyed hearing your perspective, both of you. And Gaylord, what you said, that Native American art is foundation is so true, I appreciate hearing that. It is foundational to our way of life, our way of looking at the world, our way of being in the world, our teachings, our intelligence, our knowledge, our science, our research, our aesthetic. And I enjoyed your story, Val, about the person you spoke with in Ohio, but there does remain the fact that every single nation whose belongings are in the exhibit now need to be consulted with. And I have two things to say…the first is an offer. And I offer gratitude to you both because the occasion of this exhibit opening has called for a lot of conversation amongst many indigenous people who have come here. So a lot of conversation and a big gathering of us together, and that is always a bit celebratory. But I have to say that it has also been sad. And there is a lot of pain and a lot of anger. And I speak for myself only when I say that it is painful for me to walk through that hall. Those, as you said Val, are my ancestors that you are holding.”
At this point a Met museum staffer interrupted. Emily said that she did have a question and asserted that what she had to say was important.
“While your purchases have been with a beautiful intention and curatorial view, as you’ve spoken about, which I very much appreciate, as you know the further beyond provenance comes from theft and under duress for every single one of our belongings in the exhibit. And, it would be an incredible moment, as collectors, as humans wanting a better world, as humans looking for healing and reparations, to offer all of the belongings back to the communities from which they come from. Because many of those belongings need to be taken care of, they need to be sung to, they need to be fed, some need to be buried, some need to be burned, some need to be taken care of in different ways, but that is up, of course, for the communities to decide, and then the communities can individually decide, the leaders from those nations, can decide what to share with you now. Because that is the way forward, rather than looking at everything from the past, non-indigenous, colonial, and collectors’ lens. We can now look forward to a way in which it’s actual conversation and it is actual healing, I would say. So I offer that as a chance, a step you could take, to be real leaders in this field and I have ways that you could do that.”
Emily then went on to ask the following questions that she formulated with friend Jane Anderson, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Museum Studies at New York University:
1) “Was an inventory of all potential NAGPRA material in this collection made? And what was your process of consulting over the display of NAGPRA items? And when will the provenance of all the items be made public?” and 2) “Do you have a repatriation coordinator here at the Met? Who is the relevant contact person for us to talk to, to discuss care of our belongings and the potential repatriation of the items in this collection?
Valerie immediately responded, “These items still belong to Chuck and myself. We have curated them very strictly and frequently with the Native community and they have not issued a problem to us. We are very sensitive to NAGPRA.” Although a response to Emily’s questions, Marabou was taken aback that a claim to ownership was the first thing stated when someone had just made a very vulnerable and heartfelt statement. The spirit of sharing these objects with the greater public as an act of healing was immediately checked when Valerie reminded everyone that she and Chuck are still the owners.
Charles followed up by saying,
“The provenance is what it is. We have listed the provenance in the show and in the catalogue, so we have done our work on the provenance. And this is something that the many Native Americans we have discussed this with have been so appreciative of the fact that this material and these great things are being shown to the world and will be cared for, will be cared for on a permanent basis has appealed to them so much. And they have thanked us, unlike what you have done today, they have thanked us for doing what we did, so I’m kind of surprised by your…”
Emily interrupted with a response, but it was hard to hear what she said since she did not have the mic.
Valerie then interjected, diverting the discussion by expressing that she would like to give others the opportunity to ask questions, but did say that Emily could come up afterward to ask her second question. A member of the Met staff spoke to the NAGPRA question saying that the museum is sensitive to these issues, is knowledgeable of the NAGPRA process, and is working with Native communities across the country.
Although not surprising, the way Charles shutdown the conversation is disappointing. The work has not been done on the provenance. Simply saying that “this belongs to the Dikers” is not provenance work. During the lecture, the couple shared the names of two dealers they worked with. Why aren’t these dealers listed in the provenance? The lack of information further justifies questions about whether or not these objects were obtained ethically. The second part of Charles comment is defensive, paternalistic, and condescending. It was hard to embrace Valerie’s call to healing when she and Charles received questions from the audience, particularly from the Native community, so abrasively.
“Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection” is a landmark exhibition because it truly is a positive step toward including Native American art, culture, and perspectives in the overall narrative told in the Met’s American Wing. Gaylord Torrence stated, as the lecture was wrapping up, that the Met is just at the beginning stages of working with NAGPRA and Native communities. A beginning is a good thing as long as momentum follows it. On the exhibition website, there is a list of resources sharing information about local and national Native organizations dedicated to art and culture, as well as links for further reading about indigenous history in the United States. It’s clear the Met is moving toward a different way of thinking in contrast to years past. In sum, “Art of Native America” embodies the ongoing tension between the refusal to relinquish white space and ownership and the need to acknowledge Native American contributions and history.
“Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection” runs until October 9, 2019 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.