Big, bold, and according to many accounts of the time, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 56-word land recognition plaque, affixed to the facade of Fifth Avenue in May, honors the past and present of the indigenous peoples (mostly the Lenape), their homeland the institution is.
Visitors to the Met or the Art Institute of Chicago, or any of the other museums where they are recognized by the land, may wonder how these sentiments, created with the utmost care and usually in consultation with indigenous communities, fit into galleries spanning roughly two centuries the art that depicts Native Americans as sometimes brave, sometimes demonic, and mostly doomed. Not to mention their proximity to many art-historical celebrations of the Manifest Destiny in landscapes by Alfred Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and others.
This is difficult terrain, and the Met has been both steadfast and cautious in the mapping: the bronze plaque was years in coming, while the murals by Kent Monkman, a Canadian artist of Cree descent, welcomed visitors to the from 2019 to April The Great Hall were a bold commissioned piece of late that offers witty references to famous works from the museum’s collection.
But it is in the American Wing where the intent of a bronze plaque must be more than just a mark of virtue. And here is a Land and Water Declaration by Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purépecha), the museum’s first female Native American curator and the museum’s first female Native American art curator, appointed in 2020. Longer and more specific in its commitment to showcasing Native American art, and its historical and contemporary ties to indigenous communities, the statement will be placed next to Scrimshaw Study, a beautiful 2021 ceramic by multimedia artist Courtney Leonard was borrowed from Shinnecock Nation.
Leonard’s contemporary work with its visual references to the environmental history of the local Shinnecock is placed alongside the historical material of the “Art of Native America”. This is a characteristically bold curatorial moment for Norby, and it shapes their new rotation of this ongoing exhibition of the landmark collection of gifts, promised gifts, and loans from Charles and Valerie Diker beginning in the 1990s.
Norby lives for physical engagement, for the moments when she can show you how a ceramic, textile, carving or painting from the 19th century is made and how it relates to the contemporary works that she shows in the Diker exhibition added. “I’m interested in the cross-generational and ecological knowledge that the objects I work with embody,” she told me in a rare didactic moment. After walking through the gallery with her, it is already clear that the boundaries that many museums live with – historical / contemporary, Native American / non-Indian, European / Native American, visual arts / decorative arts – are the ones they successfully ignore becomes.
As an “urban Indian” on Chicago’s West Side, she has been questioning the boundaries since she was a child. Her great grandparents settled there after leaving the Mexican state of Michoacán during the Great Depression, and she remembers her community with great love. “Indians have always been urban,” she says. “Every major American city has large concentrations of Indians from all backgrounds.” Her parents moved to the suburb of Arlington Heights when she was in elementary school, but she continued to refer to Chicago as “going home,” and sometimes always does still.
When not at the Met, Norby, 50, is on a six-acre farm in rural Wisconsin with her husband, a veterinarian, and their teenage daughter. They hunt, grow much of what they eat, and there is a local community of local women from whom she learned many techniques of beading and making regalia. In her free time, you can just as often find her playing the banjo or listening to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Afro-American string band, as well as a text about the sovereignty of the tribes.
Her references include a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota with an emphasis on Native American history, art, and visual culture, and an upcoming book, Water, Bones, and Bombs, on art and environmental issues in New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley. She has held positions at the Newberry Library in Chicago and the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, won numerous awards and worked specifically on the expropriation and repatriation of cultural property.
For all her education, Norby is less academic in her approach to the arts than many curators, and prefers to talk about how her MFA in printmaking and photography affects her curatorial work. “I’m interested in what it takes to make something – the physical and emotional toll. I don’t care which artist is hot, ”she said. “I love to see things that are deeply connected to aesthetic protocols, but also have something new and fresh about them.”
This passion is visible from the moment you step on the new rotation of “Art of Native America”. The map that originally greeted visitors marking nine Native American cultural areas – Woodlands, Plains, Plateau, etc. – has disappeared. “There are different homelands,” admits Norby, “but there was a lot more exchange than maps can convey, and maps are indigenous settler ideas anyway.”
Instead, visitors encounter two contemporary works: “Untitled (Dream Catcher)” from 2014 by Marie Watt (Seneca), a huge collection of recovered blankets that have been quilted by many hands into a patchwork of indigenous stories. It sets the stage for the rest of the exhibition, as does the Northern Traditional Dance Dress and Accessories (2005) opposite, created by Jodi Archambault (Lakota) with family and friends and featuring 15 pounds of pearls and worn in pow wow competitions .
The spirit of community and the continuity of past and present are unmistakable in both pieces and are unmistakably part of how Norby, together with Sylvia Yount, curator of the American Wing, realized this new installation of the Diker material. Although still categorized geographically, the 116 works from more than 50 cultures have been reduced to 89, 29 of which were recently added by the Dikers and others.
In addition to the conversation of historical works with some contemporary works, there is an invigorating shift in the most common aspect of museum exhibits, the wall label. Many of the labels have been adapted or replaced with texts by artists and scholars from the source communities, largely erasing the usual hierarchy in which museum curators speak for the art and to the visitors.
“I am a visitor here myself,” explains Norby, why it is not her job to talk about the work of another community, and why it is important to reach out to living people not just to talk about an object, but also help to dispel it aura of nostalgia that tarnishes our vision of the Native American people.
There will be more rotations of the collection, Norby promises; perhaps one in which works are brought into conversation with non-native art. The possibilities are many, but she assures me that the involvement of the source communities will increase with each new installation. Will there be more native visitors than she was at Newberry in Chicago? “It takes time,” she says, but I have something I like to call: “Indians attract Indians”. We always seem to find each other. “
All of this would not have been possible without the transformative gifts of Charles and Valerie Diker gathered over the past few decades. From the moment their collection was first discussed, the Dikers were eager for the Met to appoint a curator of local art. Did you plan to remove the card from the original exhibition or add contemporary works to the new rotation? No, said Charles Diker, but “the changes are freshening things up.”
“We learn from each other,” says Norby of the Dikers. “It’s about building trust on both sides.” Yount reiterated this, adding that “Patricia’s deep and longstanding commitment to building trust and inclusive relationships with indigenous communities” was critical to her attitude.
As we walk through the Engelhardhof on our way to “Art of Native America”, I stop at Saint-Gaudens’ statue of a doomed and defeated Hiawatha and expect her to make one or two snappy remarks about this routine colonialist portrayal. Instead, she appraises the court and says, “Thayer Tolles is doing such a good job here,” referring to the Wing’s curator for American painting and sculpture. She continues to look forward to working with a staff of all curators.
Norby is aware that she has arrived at an opportune time as the American Wing is recreating itself under Yount. Founded in 1924 in the spirit of colonial revival, it has come a long way since ancient rooms and pilgrim furniture ruled the day, and native art has been shown elsewhere – in the Rockefeller Wing featuring the arts of Africa, Oceania and America. As of 2018, works by Frederic Remington, Henry Inman, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and many others have, in addition to their traditional wall labels, a rotating set of what the Met calls “Native Perspectives” by contemporary artists and scholars. Local art was also installed here and there in the painting galleries in the wing.
If Norby expands the presence of contemporary indigenous art in the American Wing, it will overcome another boundary – the long-standing, peculiar four-block separation between late modern and contemporary American art and the American Wing in mid-17th century art. And when she then shows Native Art in other departmental galleries what she would like to do, then she has also started to realign the museum itself with the new bronze plaque on its facade.
Elizabeth Pochoda writes for The Nation and The Magazine Antiques.