Every picture tells a story. But some pictures, or objects and artifacts, have more stories to tell than others.
Such is the case with “Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection,” opening Oct. 10 at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum.
Drawn from the collection of Manhattanites Charles and Valerie Diker, one of the largest and deepest exhibits of Native art from across North America ever to be shown in Atlanta is filled with pieces that not only express visionary creativity but also reflect complex and often intertwined cultural histories from many tribes and nations.
Included are prime examples of basketry, pottery, sculpture, masks, regalia and paintings.
“This collection is just of extraordinarily high quality,” said Carlos curator Rebecca Stone of the touring exhibit of 118 works organized by the American Federation of Arts. “The Dikers’ collection was put together in the ’80s when amazing objects were still for sale.”
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Stone sought to bring the first major exhibit of Native American and Canadian First Nations art to the Carlos after she established a small gallery in the Emory museum showcasing such materials in 2013. She noted that the Diker Collection is rich in works that date from pre-1880, before interaction with European settlers and acculturation enforced by the U.S. government forever changed how and where indigenous people lived.
“I think it serves as a great introduction for anybody, even if they don’t want to read any (exhibition) labels,” the curator said. “Just walk through and they’ll see, instinctively, how different the incredible beaded dresses and the painted hides are from the woven textiles, wooden masks and clay pots.”
The show is organized by regions rather than by medium or chronology, with the walls of different sections set off by signature colors, such as maroon signaling Plains Indian pieces and deep green setting off works of the tribes who call Canada’s Northwest Coast home.
Stone predicts that museum visitors will gain a greater appreciation of the artistry, aesthetics and diversity of Native American art, which is rarely shown in Atlanta.
“They’ll see just how complex each work is if they spend time with it,” the curator said. “The trouble is there’s 118 pieces, so you have to pick.”
For starters, here’s a glimpse at the stories behind five objects:
Apsáalooke man’s shirt
This circa 1875 Apsáalooke (or Crow) shirt from Montana is the first display visitors will encounter in “Indigenous Beauty.”
“The Crow shirts are the sort of Monets of Native American art,” Stone said. “They are what everyone tends to appreciate. … They say ‘Native American’ to people.”
Though Western art is filled with stereotypical depictions of warring Indians, this highly decorated garment is a true reflection of the glory of the warrior, the curator said.
The fringe hanging down from the shirt’s arms is made from ermine pelts, which Stone calls “furry badges of courage.” Each strand, along with each length of human hair over the chest area, symbolizes an act of bravery and accomplishment in war.
Plains Indians traded beaver pelts to white settlers for Venetian and Czechoslovakian glass beads, among other items, that they used to embellish ceremonial garb.
This shirt was likely designed and sewn by the wife of the warrior, Stone said, the light blue and pink fabric true to the Apsáalooke palette.
“It literally gives me chills,” she added. “It’s just such an incredible piece.”
Tlingit tunic, leggings
This late 19th-century tunic and leggings of white mountain-goat wool, from the village of Klukwan, Alaska, is an example of what Stone calls “high-prestige weaving” in the Northwest Coast.
The energetic graphic elements were adopted by women weavers who worked from pattern boards created by male artists.
Stone marvels that the weavers were able to accomplish organic round and oval shapes while working on an upright loom more fitting to create straight-lined geometric designs. The curving shapes required the development of complex weaving techniques, with one piece taking as much as a year to complete.
Northwest Coast clans are represented by different creatures, and this suit with its eagle-like emblems was most likely used in ceremonial performances such as potlatch feasts hosted by chiefs to celebrate the valor of their clans or to mark a rite of passage.
Yup’ik dance ornament
When placed on a stand, this ceremonial dance ornament becomes an attention-grabbing sculpture, but most likely this delicate, lightweight, circa 1900 object from the Yup’ik people of Alaska was worn or manipulated in a shamanistic ceremony.
Viewers may find something humorous about the human figure paddling a large vessel that takes the form of a walrus, but the piece’s purpose was serious, Stone said.
She believes the figure is a shaman and the ornament depicts his vision that gives him sway, much like a rainmaker making rain, over the walrus.
“So if Yup’ik hunters are having trouble hunting the walrus, they need to go to this particular shaman and get some more mojo,” the curator said.
The shaman, who plays a particularly prominent role among First Nations people of the Arctic, is a visionary who’s not merely calling an actual walrus or walruses, but summoning the spirit that governs all walruses.
“That’s their duty.”
The curator notes that though “Indigenous Beauty” is not aimed at children, kids will find much to command their attention with its wealth of animal imagery and other whimsical expressions.
Lenni Lenape man’s coat
This circa 1840 coat, made by the Lenni Lenape (or Delaware Indians) after their displacement to Missouri or Kansas, is an object that reflects a fusion of cultures.
With its fitted waist, cuffed sleeves and broad cape across the shoulders, the cut of the coat was inspired by Virginian hunting shirts that Delaware people may have encountered before the Revolutionary War.
Created a generation later by a Delaware woman who had immigrated to the Midwest, this design is made of deerskin hide and decorated with brown and blue glass beads embroidered in abstract floral patterns.
Those flower forms, along with the pleats and fringe, make the man’s coat appear “a little dress-like,” Stone acknowledged.
“In that time, European men’s clothing was pretty fancy,” she said. “When cultures are coming together and taking bits and pieces from each other, they might not be as concerned about gender.”
Those floral motifs, by the way, were brought by the Lenni Lenape from the woodlands of the east, where they first lived before a series of removals.
The coats were sold to Native and non-Native buyers.
“We can get all politically up in arms, but really it was extremely creative to have the Native American and European culture blend — just in terms of the art — because they’re such opposite worlds,” Stone said. “This is a piece that’s in between the two cultures.”
Hopi-Tewa water jar
Nampeyo of Hano was one of the best-known and most innovative Pueblo potters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The prolific Hopi-Tewa craftswoman worked for many years at a studio near the Grand Canyon’s south rim, demonstrating her hand-building technique from coils of clay and peddling pots to tourists.
Though the idea of styling ceramics for the passing trade might sound like it had the potential to produce ersatz work, curator Stone said this circa 1900 water jar is the real deal, with one asterisk.
This foot-wide jar features the image of a round-faced Hopi dancer wearing a large tablita headdress. The headdress boasts stylized feathers that connect to Hopi beliefs, projecting upward toward the spirit realm. These Katsinam figures were believed to live half the year in the clouds and the other half nearer to the Hopi villages, responding to prayers for rain and other needs.
Nampeyo, however, took a more generic approach to the face. That was by design, the curator believes.
“There’s a secrecy aspect to these spirits,” Stone said. “Many of the Hopi — then and now — want to keep the right to express their own religion, even if it means not allowing outsiders to fully understand it.”