Transformed by Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art, a walk through the third floor of Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum is a walk through the vivid visual history of our continent’s earliest inhabitants, featuring 118 breathtaking pieces from the collection of Charles and Valerie Diker.
The Diker Collection has been displayed at the Seattle Art Museum, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and will be on display at the Carlos until Jan. 3, 2016, after which it will move to the Toledo Museum of Art. As private collectors, the Dikers have achieved something remarkable.
“What’s extraordinary about this collection, in my view, is the enormous range [of art] that it contains,” Gaylord Torrence, the Fred and Virginia Merrill Senior Curator of American Indian Art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, said. “Most collections — not only of American Indian art, but any other kind of category — tend to be somewhat compartmentalized. Some people collect Navajo blankets, or Plains art or Southwest pottery, but the Dikers have collected across the North American continent, and they’ve done it with an amazing connoisseurship.”
The breadth of which Torrence speaks is immediately apparent and awe-inspiring. The exhibition features masterworks from peoples across the North American continent and is organized by geographical region, resulting in what feels like a walk across the continent as one moves from displays of buffalo hides, immaculately painted with the traditional geometric patterns of the Plains people, to Navajo pottery and tightly woven baskets to strikingly delicate, yet powerful, Inuit masks.
“In walking through [the exhibition] for the first time, I was so struck with what’s been done,” Torrence said. “There’s something remarkable about this installation. One thing is that you’re going to be able to see things very closely, which doesn’t often happen in tribal museums.”
Each display, carefully crafted by former Curator of Native American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts David Penney to exist within the Carlos’ intimate spaces, places the viewer close to the art itself and seeks to highlight the beauty of the pieces.
The installation opens with a pair of Plains shirts, but to call them shirts is an understatement in light of the symbolic nature of every stitch and bead and the care and craftsmanship that went into their creation.
“In one [shirt], you have deerskin, ermine tails, glass beads, human hair, trade cloth,” Torrence said. “And it is all beautifully organized into this stunning shirt, which would’ve been worn by a man of great prominence. In other words, this guy could walk through a crowd and not have to say a word about who he was or what he’d achieved in life.”
With their many elements from the human, animal and natural worlds, these shirts are perfect examples of the unique way in which Native American art is not only a reflection of the cultural beliefs and traditions of the peoples, but a reflection of the North American land itself and the interconnectedness between these early nations and the world around them.
Another piece of ornamented clothing that highlights this interconnectedness was created on the opposite side of the continent, by Tlingit people of the Northwest coast. An outfit with a tunic and pants, it features images of ravens and other animals, boldly woven onto a white background with black, turquoise, yellow and red fibers. Viewed as a trickster character, the raven was central to Tlingit literature, and their legends even credit the raven as the creator of light.
“There are probably literally hundreds of raven stories,” Faculty Curator of Art of the Americas at Emory Rebecca Stone said. “[These stories] are a wonderful look into the beautiful, wonderful, strange world of the Northwest coast.”
The part of the exhibition devoted to the geographic Southwest is an homage to the robust pottery and intricately woven baskets created by the peoples of this region.
To us, these pieces may seem to belong in art museum; however, it’s incredible that these perfectly formed vessels with their intricate geometric designs were created to serve mundane, daily purposes, such as carrying foodstuffs. These people seem to have infused beauty and symbolism into every part of their lives, laboring over something as seemingly simple as a basket or piece of pottery until it came to mean something.
“During the course of this exhibition, I’ve come to love [baskets],” Torrence said. “When [the artist] began, she began with the bottom of the basket, creating a simple cross-stitch, and then spiraled outwards, sewing each coil to the next. If you painted this piece white, it would be a beautiful shape. It has a beautiful texture. But you have to think about her ability to manage that design in relation to the creation of the form. There’s no revision on it; it’s going up, coil by coil by coil. She didn’t weave this and then paint it; she built it.”
In regard to the spiraling nature of the baskets’ construction, Stone added, “The spiral is a cosmological entity throughout Native American art and the tribal art of the world. It represents cyclical thinking, which was much more present [in their cultures] than our linear thinking, but it also progresses through time like our linear thinking.”
In the Inuit gallery, a striking mask features a salmon, seal, bird and human hand, all intertwined and barely distinguishable to create an abstracted human face.
“It’s human,” Torrence said, “But [it’s also] all of these creatures, all at the same time, as part of this amazing construct. The idea of transformation, of a human being able to shift form, to become a prey animal and come back. It’s part of the shamanistic journey, but also of hunting. Of course this [mask] would be danced in a ceremony during winter, so it has an amazing sense of drama and truly expresses the connection between humans and animals and the world, and by extension the landscape.”
While many pieces in the Diker Collection are historical, the exhibition features three modern pieces, one of which is a breathtaking sculpture that was completed in 2010 by the Native American artist Rhonda Holy Bear.
“[Holy Bear] calls it a doll, but really it’s a sculpture,” Stone said of the complex, colorful form of a powerful woman on her horse with saddlebags and babies and ceremonial adornments. “It relates to the Sioux Nation’s creation myth, in which the first mother gave birth to a boy and a girl twin, and they married and created the rest of the people. [This sculpture] is not just a mother and her children, but it has a cosmological reverberation.”
Valerie Diker added, “No one else has set hand to this piece. Just imagine how much of herself — her soul — is embedded in it. She carried it herself to [the Seattle Art Museum]. It’s historically accurate: everything about it is exactly the way it would’ve been at the historical period of the whole piece.”
Of the Collection’s modern pieces, Stone emphasized, “Native American culture and art [are] not dead.”
It is often easy to think of Native American culture in the past tense, but Indigenous Beauty highlights the vivacity that is contained within these masterworks and invigorates our understanding of the breadth and the complexities that lie beneath our perceptions of Native American art.