Water Memories, Metropolitan Museum Review – The eloquent history of America’s indigenous cultures – Financial Times | Candle Made Easy

A flotilla of loosely connected thoughts drifts through water memories, a compact but eloquent exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum’s Indian Galleries. It is an attractively free-associative show that touches on themes and reflections like a stone skimming a lake. Featuring a selection of objects old and new, it weaves through the theme of water in Native American cultures, blending the spiritual, the practical, and the aesthetic.

A collection of glass lamps that once burned whale oil now stands unlit but still sparkling, having made the transition from household utensil to museum piece. Nearby, Shinnecock ceramist Courtney M Leonard’s mound of artificial but nacreous corollas emits a calm, lush glow. These plays remind us that whales were not just living oddities or literary metaphors in the 19th century; They powered the New England economy and provided countless commercial products. The beast’s bacon greased machines and lit houses. Baleen – the stiff bristle screen in the mouth that holds food in when water spurts out – has been transformed into corset boning and skirt hoops. The synthetic ambergris, which gives some perfumes their musky tone, originally had to be extracted from the intestines of a sperm whale.

The Shinnecock Nation of Long Island depended on whales for physical and cultural sustenance. In the 1970s, the federal government declared them off-limits to hunting, but legislation failed to dampen the animal’s symbolic value or its role in the tribe’s connection to the sea. Leonard was on site in 2005 when a dead whale lay on a beach in the Hamptons and villa owners who wanted it went against their people, who were claiming the carcass for ritual purposes.

A carved Chumash whale (16th-17th centuries) © Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller

Ornate clear, blue and green glass lamps

Collection of glass lamps that once burned whale oil © Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image: Anna-Marie Kellen, courtesy of the Met

“Certain things are messages,” Leonard told the New York Times. “These people taking photos? They will remember that. But to the Shinnecocks, spiritually, that whale is much more important.” In a way, this exhibition acts as a museum expression of a similar sentiment.

A selection of artists, indigenous and non-indigenous, hang side by side in a show less interested in purity than in association. Part-Luiseno Fritz Scholder, who turned to his native heritage with unpredictable enthusiasm, contributed a monumental triptych in which a demonic winged angel lands on the beach with a crash of flesh. The Long Island connection brings us to a luminous painting by the decidedly non-Indian Arthur Dove, who lived on a houseboat and navigated the Long Island Sound with his wife and fellow painter Helen Torr. Dove’s 1929 Reaching Waves captures a quiet but intense moment at home, churned by waves and shaken by storm clouds – perhaps a nod to how their affair had torn apart their two previous marriages.

Oil painting of creamy gray waves
Arthur Dove’s Reaching Waves (1929) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

The American impressionist William Merritt Chase also makes an appearance. In the sensuous upper-class idyll “By the Sea”, his children clad in white cavort in the sand under clouds of cotton wool. A wall text hints at the age-old conflicts and chasms that even such a carefree seascape can obscure. “For Chase, seawater encouraged an aesthetic study of asymmetrical visual harmony,” the panel reads. “To the Shinnecock, the ocean embodies ancestral connections, intergenerational ways of life, and sovereignty.” Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purépecha), the Met’s first curator of Native American art, encourages viewers to maintain this bifocal view—something so fundamental as a source of both beauty and for social cohesion.

as small as it is water memories brings the museum a little further on the path it embarked on in 2018, when it moved its Native American collection from the galleries dedicated to Africa, Oceania and the Americas to a newly designed suite of rooms in the American wing. Norby, who has organized a large new installation, leads the viewer to connections between different works.

This approach can be confusing. In one case, she combines an 18th-century wicker vessel woven from wetland juncus grass by an unknown artist from the Chumash Nation of California with a pair of carved miniature whales (mother and calf) made for tourism became. The basket is a marvel, a refined and solid sculpture. “I see my family, my community, my homeland and my waters in every Chumash basket that is within museum walls,” enthuses a member of the tribe in the wall text. “The fluidity, strength and durability of the materials are reminiscent of the women in my family.”

Photograph of two people submerged underwater wearing formal attire

Water Memory (2015) by Cara Romero © Cara Romero; Metropolitan Museum of Art

A blue denim jacket with a red eagle on the back

A Native American activist denim jacket (1970-71) owned by Rick St. Germaine © Metropolitan Museum of Art; courtesy Chippewa Valley Museum; Image: Anna Marie Kellen

Oil painting of a beach scene with people lying on the sand next to bright umbrellas
At the Seaside (c.1892) by William Merritt Chase © Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Adelaide Milton de Groot

But if the basket functions as an example of a continuing tradition, Norby uses the whale figurines to tell the opposite story: They are replicas, possibly carved by an unauthorized shopkeeper, that “represent misguided human desire to invent memories and inauthentic connections.” to make places through cultural appropriation.” This tone is oddly censorious toward charming pieces the Met acquired decades ago, which are still labeled “16th-17th Centuries” in its online catalogue. Century” are listed.

Norby isn’t usually so reproachful in her juxtapositions; Typically, it sets up and runs dialogs. Tom Jones of the Ho Chunk Nation took a picture of a Trail Marker Tree in Wisconsin. Over the years, people have bent its branches by weighing them down with stones, making the tree a living guide to wildlife, settlements, medicinal plants and, of course, waterways. With his camera, Jones transformed it again, this time into a wordless essay on the relationship between man and nature.

Gray-green photo of bare branches in a clearing

Trail Marker Trees Series by Tom Jones (Ho-Chunk) © Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy Sherry Leedy Gallery/the artist

A few steps away we see a series of photographs by the 19th-century cartographer Henry P. Bosse, who mapped the upper Mississippi River for the US Army Corp of Engineers. German-born Bosse oscillates between romantic and scientific modes. Sometimes he photographs the landscape as if it were uncharted territory; in others he points his camera at evidence of rapid urbanization: bridges, buildings, telegraph poles, tram tracks. Like Jones, he leaves out the area’s residents, excluding the presence of whites from the marks they leave on the land – and wiping out the native population altogether.

More than a century apart, Jones and Bosse’s views of the Midwest use confident artistry to register the ways we manipulate nature to encourage travel, enterprise, lifestyle and commerce. This sensitivity unites the two photographers, whose works exude an elegiac buzz, a nostalgia for a time when wilderness reigned supreme and waterways flowed unhindered and untamed.

Until April 2023, metmuseum.org

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