Ten years seems like a long time for an exhibition to be up, but maybe not for something like "Infinity of Nations" at the National Museum of the American Indian George Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan.
I’ve visited the exhibition three times and have only begun to see many of the approximately 700 works in the show. Yes, 700. The show’s subtitle "Art and History in the Collection of the National Museum of the American Indian" hints at how extensive its reach is -- works from Native American cultures from the southern tip of South America to the northern top of Canada.
Better still is the quality of the objects in the show. "Infinity of Nations" blows out any previous Native American show in this country for breadth but also dazzle. These exquisite objects range in date from several painted clay female figurines from the Valdivia culture of Ecuador (ca. 3500 BC), the oldest known pottery in the Western hemisphere, to pieces made recently.
Larry Beck, a Seattle-born sculptor whose Yup’ik heritage got him interested in the masking traditions of the Northwest Coast, made his Walrus Spirit in 1982 from found objects. Drawing on Pop Art influences, its sleek construction and distinctive, diffident personality certainly made me smile.
Ten headdresses, emphasizing the splendor of Native American art-making, kick off the show in a room of their own. An Amazonian Brazilian headdress or cope of white, blue and red heron and macaw feathers, is not only radiant but underlines the continuity in some cultural groups, since it was made in 1990.
The remainder of the exhibition is divided into ten geographical areas with works from multiple cultural groups in each. Their being adjacent suggests how porous these spaces were to cultural exchange and, in many cases, still are.
Items made with materials foreign to the areas of their production evoke complex trade networks. An incised whelk shell gorget from the Mississippian culture from a site in Tennessee, far from any sea, attests to far-flung trade routes ca. 1250-1350, when the piece was made. The warrior with a severed head looks very much like a Mesoamerican figure. He is seen dancing in imitation of the Morning Star, a symbol of masculinity. Yet the mounds made by the Mississippian culture preceded those in Mesoamerica. The unknowns, particularly about this region, offer lots of opportunities for further research.
Sometimes we know a bit more about connections. The Hohokam, an early Pueblo-people that inhabited western Mexico and the extreme deserts in what is now the United States Southwest, left traces of a rich material culture that connected them to California and Mexico. When something upended their settlements in the Southwest, some migrated to Chihuahua, Mexico where a stunning effigy jug of painted clay was created around 1200-1400.
Only a few more strictly utilitarian items are included, and they tell stories, like the arrows (1911-16) made by the man believed to be the last member of the Yahi tribe in California, suggesting how much has been lost.
Historical pieces remind viewers of how Indians were perceived and how convoluted their relationships with non-Natives. An etched copper alloy "Peace Medal" of 1676 from the Massachusetts Bay Colony was given to Christian Indian scouts, who helped the British defeat other Native Americans fighting against colonial expansion. The image of the Native American is from the Massachusetts seal.
Of course, trade beads from non-Natives were transformed into fabulous, wearable art from one end of North America to the other. I expect fashionistas will get even more ideas about beading and fringe than they have in the past from Native Americans with this show.
A drop-dead gorgeous Inuit woman’s parka from Nunavet, Canada, successfully integrates geometric and floral motifs. The delightful color scheme is the result of about 160,000 glass beads and ivory toggles. A caribou skin and teeth, cloth, and metal were also used in its construction sometime around 1895-1915, during the booming whaling days of Hudson Bay. And moccasins, ca. 1880, associated with Peo Peo T’olikt, an Indian warrior who eventually became a rancher in Idaho, sprout trippy flowers in vivid colors that are unforgettable.
Whether the piece is a Mayan stone carving of a ball-player from Guatemala around 600-750 or a painted wood mask from Bob Harris, a Kwakwaka’wakw carver, from Vancouver Island in Canada around 1900, each is outstanding.
With so many works, curator Cécile R. Ganteaume, associate curator of the National Museum of the American Indian, has singled out one object from each of the ten geocultural areas to highlight in its own case. A Native American discusses the piece at the push of a button.
If you don’t have much time, I’d suggest floating through the show, stopping when something arrests your attention, and also taking advantage of the insights provided by the Native Americans. The exhibition is so rich that it deserves multiple visits. And since it’s up for ten years, we have some time.
My only suggestion to the museum would be to devote even more area to these wonderful objects if they ever tackle a show of this size again. I know space was a concern, and they look terrific in the space allotted; yet I yearned to see many of the smaller sculptural pieces in the round, perhaps in their own cases.
For the moment, I can hardly wait to go back.
"Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian," Oct. 23, 2010-Oct. 25, 2020, at the George Gustav Heye Center, 1 Bowling Green, New York, N.Y. 10004
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.