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Indepth Arts News:

"Uncommon Legacies: Native American Art from the Peabody Essex Museum"
2002-05-10 until 2002-08-04
Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University
Stanford, CA, USA United States of America

The exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Peabody Essex Museum. Showcasing approximately 100 exemplary art works from one of the nation's oldest collections of native art, the exhibition reveals the richness of indigenous cultures of the Americas in a variety of mediums and forms. Following an introductory section of 13 rarely exhibited objects from European collections,

Uncommon Legacies is arranged in five thematic groupings: "Nations Within"; "Pacific Coast Traders"; "The Interior Wilderness: Outposts, Explores, and Sojourners"; "The Interior Wilderness: Missionaries"; and "South American Adventurers." Each section examines how Native American artists responded to the changing cultural landscape from 1750 to 1850.

Selected by guest curators John R. Grimes, Deputy Director of Special Projects and Curator of Native American Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, and Christian Feest, professor of anthropology at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe Universitšt University of Frankfurt, and overseen by an advisory committee of eminent Native American experts, this exhibition moves beyond traditional stereotypes and ethnocentric viewpoints, presenting recent research and new scholarship.

According to AFA director Julia Brown, "Since 1909, the American Federation of Arts has produced outstanding programs based upon rigorous scholarship and a fresh, stimulating approach, including exhibitions of Native American art, such as Uncommon Legacies. We are delighted to be collaborating with the Peabody Essex in bringing these exceptional works of art to new audiences."

The genesis of the East India Marine Society's collection, as the Peabody Essex Museum was named originally, makes it a powerful vehicle for understanding the creative versatility of Native American artists of this period. The Society was founded in 1799 by an elite group of sea captains who emulated the collecting voyages of Captain James Cook and developed a "cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities," a foundation for what was to become the collection.

Although the collection was inspired by Cook's expeditions, it differs significantly in that it was assembled in the course of regular commercial and missionary interactions between native peoples and non-natives. Ship captains both chronicled the creative output of the people with whom they had contact, and were themselves agents of profound social, political, and economic change.

Salem became the headquarters of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1812, and by 1816-20, missionaries had set out to minister to the Cherokee and other southeastern Native American peoples. Over the next two decades, missionary outposts were established in the Great Lakes region. Seeking to document the lives of the peoples with whom they lived, missionaries at many of these stations collected native works, forming remarkable collections that subsequently became part of the Peabody Essex Museum's holdings.

In the Pacific Northwest, commerce created extensive trade relationships between American mariners and Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl, and other native communities. Trading for furs and other natural commodities for the Chinese market, Salem's captains also traded to obtain items for display at the East India Marine Society, including masks, textiles, personal apparel, and many utilitarian objects, both decorated and plain. These range from the spectacular "Coppers" Chilkat blanket, the earliest known of its type, to ingeniously carved stone pipes and other small items that combine native iconography with images of men and ships of the American trade.

The early 19th-century lumber and fish trade of the New England and Canadian maritime coasts yielded opportunities for assembling the Society's collection of works by Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Micmac artists. For example, a magnificent Pawtucket pouch from the 17th century is one of very few extant works from this early period. In many parts of southern New England, a new cultural milieu and new modes of creative expression emerged from the economic interaction of Europeans and Native Americans through hunting, trapping, and fishing.

Both the Yankee merchants and whalers on their passage around Cape Horn visited the ports of call on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America. They brought back a wealth of native art, including ceramics from Peru, an apron from the Caribbean, and a headdress from Brazil.

Over the last two decades, both scholars and connoisseurs have become persuaded that traditional Native American arts are to be viewed as a dynamic continuum of creative responses to new ideas, influences, and materials. These oldest surviving Native American works belong to a complex living tapestry of cultural expression. They are the product of the artists' effort to balance, in a particular time and place, the shifting conventions of the community with their own visions, skills, and mediums.

Baby Carrier
Chippewa-Ojibwa (Anishinabe) or Ottawa (Odawa)
ca. 1835
Wood, cloth, quills, beads, leather, and shells
Peabody Essex Museum
Ex A.B.C.F.M. Collection, 1946

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