New Installation of Native American Opens in Denver

Denver, CO  - New Installation at the Denver Art Museum Opens
When the Denver Art Museum’s signature American Indian art galleries reopened last week after a seven-month overhaul, the biggest change wasn’t the new display cases or the dramatic lighting. Rather, it was in a less obvious place: the wall labels.
For the first time many of the works on display are attributed to individual artists instead of just their tribes. It is a revolution in museum practice that many scholars hope will spread, raising the stature of American Indian artists and elevating their work from the category of artifacts to the more exalted realm of art.
So the museum’s “Wild Man of the Woods” mask, made in 1900 and previously identified only as “Kwakiutl,” will be attributed to Willie Seaweed, a Canadian carver who died in 1967. In another gallery an exhibition of more than 30 pieces of pottery will celebrate the extraordinary skill of Nampeyo, a Hopi woman born around 1860. Other objects, thought to be the work of single unknown creators — like a selection of Navajo “eyedazzler” weavings dated 1885-1900 — will be grouped together with labels reading, “Artist not known.”  New York Times

Nancy Blomberg, curator of Native American art at the Denver Art Museum and the force behind the new installation has, according to the New York Times, focused on attributing works of art in the collection to artists. Her statements in the Times articles seem to indicate that she considers this a primary concern in the installation. Is that a good thing? In my judgment providing an artist's name on the label without context is confusing and misleading for the museum visitor. Unfortunately mixing contemporary works of art with traditional has become the politically correct path in not only Native American but also African as well. Two great examples are the National Museum of American Indian and the National Museum of African Art where they engage in collecting and displaying both contemporary and traditional works of art. In my judgment this can only be effective if the issues of  authenticity are addressed and the museum visitor is made to understand that an object made for sale has a different context than an object made for ceremonial use. As the Times article points out the concept of being an "artist" is not always understood by ethnographic groups in quite the same way as it is in the west. This disparity has been blurred as we now accept a great deal of southwest historic pottery as traditional when clearly it was made for sale. Understanding the cultural context of an object is essential to interpreting art from these areas. Collection history is certainly important in this process but that information must be understood within the cultural context and not as an adjunct bit of information. The philosophical battle between anthropology and art has been ongoing for more than a century. The solution is defining the clear context of an object and why it was made. This distinction does not detract from our appreciation of either traditional or contemporary art, but it does help us understand it.