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Artist unknown
Dress, belt and awl
ca. 1870

All images from the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art

Julian Scott, ledger artist
Twelve High Ranking Kiowa Men
photo by Dirk Bakker

Artist unknown
Nisgaa/ Gitxsan/ Tsimshian
Soul catcher
ca. 1850

Artist unknown
Shamans amulet
mid 19th Century

Artist unknown
Dogfish frontlet
ca. 1860

Haida rattle

Artist unknown
Baby moccasins
ca. 1830
photo by Dirk Bakker

Artist unknown
Baby moccasins
ca. 1830
photo by Dirk Bakker
Native Excellence
by Fred Stern

First American Art: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art, Apr. 24, 2004-Oct. 31, 2005, at the National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center, One Bowling Green, New York, N.Y. 10004

Museum exhibitions of private collections often show off the collectors long-cultivated respect for and sensitivity to the art at hand. Such is the case with the Charles and Valerie Diker collection of Native American art, on view at the Smithsonian's branch at the foot of Manhattan until October 2005. The Dikers are longtime New Yorkers and co-chair the board of the directors of the Indian museums Heye Center; he heads Diker Management LLC as well as Cantel Medical Corp., while she is a writer and philanthropist.

The Dikers preside over a fabulous collection of Joan Mir canvases, Mark Rothko paintings, Louise Nevelson sculptures and other contemporary works. But the Dikers also felt that the art of Native Americans could easily establish a meaningful dialogue with their modern collection and so they have acquired a unique collection of these objects over the last 50 years. Most of their Indian pieces date back no earlier than the middle of the 19th century, because when the Dikers began collecting, early Indian objects were already scarce. Many of the 200-some tribes in North America are represented in their holdings, including the Tlingit of Alaskas Sitka Island region, the Haida of the northwest and the Navajo of the southwest.

Although many tribes lacked a specific word for art in their vocabulary, Indians certainly knew how to sew, carve, hammer and paint with exquisite attention to design, and they believed that even the most ordinary object in daily use needed to avow its spirit, and so deserved the best creative effort. Some of the best designs in the exhibition reach back centuries, while others were developed only yesterday. The pictorial element is strong, and so is abstraction. Many of these designs have heavily influenced contemporary artists of all backgrounds.

Materials were, of course, of tremendous importance to the Indian craftsman. When the white man came, natives were quick to use the new European materials they could acquire. Sometimes in challenging new approaches, the old and the new materials were combined, but more often than not, use of the older ones was discontinued. Quills were replaced by beads, coal tars replaced vegetable dyes. Steel needles and sewing machines replaced the labor of sewing by hand. All this gave the craftsman artist greater flexibility, and fellow tribesmen apparently readily accepted the new concepts in execution and design.

By and large American Indian clothing, jewelry and pottery art were created by women. Men were the originators of religious objects, masks, shamans, rattles. Art was actively taught to new generations by the most creative people in the tribe.

Over 200 objects out of their collection of more than 350 are on view. Especially rich are the displays of pottery and baskets. Here you will encounter superb examples of ollas (clay pots) by the renowned potters Maria and Julian Martinez. Among my favorites is a fine Hopi clay, slip creation dating to 1895.

The papooses on view are highly appealing. Papooses were strapped to the mothers back, providing the most secure way of carrying a baby, while at the same time permitting others to admire the infants face. One of the finest examples in the show is a decorative papoose styled in hide and wood and painted in a highly imaginative pattern by an unknown artist of the Ute tribe. It is decorated with glass beads and feathers.

A pair of Cheyenne baby moccasins, beautifully beaded even on their soles, suggest the great pride and love the artist had for this particular child. This astonishing work is dated to 1860.

A Yupik dance mask (1905) is an impressive, awe-inspiring creation of wood, paint, feathers, sinew and iron nails. Two ferocious faces surrounded by fish and hand paddles represent a world that to us seems immensely powerful, yet remains foreign.

Perhaps the most collectible items in the Hopi and Pueblo Indian array of art objects are the kachinas or katsinas, which are often mistakenly considered dolls. Actually these very skillfully carved cottonwood figurines, which are dressed in dance costumes, represent the unseen life forces of the Indians. Children attending religious ceremonies receive these figures as gifts as well as reminders of the unseen powers that will govern their lives. The Diker collection is rich with exquisite examples of kachinas.

On the spiritual side, the show features a soul catcher, a bone and abalone sculpture of unknown origin. Soul catchers were used by shamans during ceremonies to hold the a persons spirit. Soul catchers are finely sculpted and often painted with the features of ferocious animals.

Rattles were also used by shamans to summon their guardian spirits. A fine example in this exhibition is a rattle of Tsimshian origin. A wooden object, it is decorated with hair, copper wire and vegetal cordage; its face is menacing with exposed teeth and long, wide ears. Sometimes a rattle is designed to hold a shaman in its belly. Just such a rattle is on display here, dating from around 1880 and of Tlingit origin. It is in the shape of a salmon.

The selection of the objects for this exhibition was made by the Dikers and a group of art historians, critics, writers and native artists. They decided to arrange the objects in seven categories: integrity, emotion, movement, idea, composition, intimacy and vocabulary. The grouping seems somewhat arbitrary to this writer, but makes for interesting philosophical discussions.

Something needs to be said for the museums installation of this show. While the number of objects is immense, great care has been taken to provide showcases for individual objects. The large wooden platforms and careful wall mounting give each object maximum uncluttered visibility.

Over the past generation or so, art historians and connoisseurs have been instrumental in changing the perception of Native American art. These objects are no longer relegated to ethnographic museums, but have their own niches in regional and local art museums across the country. The trend continues even as the new National Museum of the American Indian is due to celebrate its opening on Washingtons National Mall this September.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.