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Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Presents "Uncommon Legacies: Native American Art from the Peabody Essex Museum"


An extraordinary group of artworks collected by traders and missionaries during the country's early years will be on view April 24 through July 20, 2003 in the first major Native American exhibition to be presented by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Peabody Essex Museum, "Uncommon Legacies: Native American Art from the Peabody Essex Museum" will introduce more than 100 key objects by indigenous North American artists working in the late-18th to mid-19th centuries. They represent five geographic areas: the Pacific Northwest, the Southeast, the Great Lakes, the New England-Canadian Maritime regions, and South America. [left: Human Face Mask, Kaigani Haida, ca. 1820; wood and paint; H 1014 in. (26.2 cm), W 712 in. (19 cm); © 2002 courtesy of The Peabody Essex Museum, Object Number E3483; gift of Daniel Cross, 1827; on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts April 24-July 20, 2003 (Photo by Mark Sexton)]

The exhibition will also include additional 18th- and early 19th-century objects from European collections. "Uncommon Legacies" reveals how American Indian artists responded to changing cultural conditions during European settlement, exploration and expansion on the North American continent.

"The Peabody Essex Museum is home to the world's most important collection of Native American artworks - including many remarkable pieces collected during the very early history of the United States," says Dr. Michael Brand, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "We are delighted to be able to celebrate the great achievements of Native American art through the showing of this remarkable collection."

"Uncommon Legacies" also marks the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the first overland exploration commissioned by the United States of the American West and the Pacific Northwest. It began in May 1804 and ended in September 1806. The expedition was authorized by President Thomas Jefferson and led by army officers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. It covered about 8,000 miles, from a camp outside Saint Louis, Mo., to the Pacific Ocean and back. [left: Moccasins, Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), early 19th century; leather, dyed quills; beads and silk; 10-1/4" (26 cm) long; Peabody Essex Museum, Ex Essex Institute Collection, 1947; from "Uncommon Legacies: Native American Art from the Peabody Essex Museum," organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Peabody Essex Museum; on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts April 24-July 20, 2003. (Photo by Mark Sexton)]

"Uncommon Legacies: Native American Art from the Peabody Essex Museum" demonstrates the dynamics of contact among native peoples and between Native Americans and European-American explorers, traders, missionaries, military personnel and settlers. The pieces in the exhibition represent the work of some 38 American Indian tribes, including the Chippewa-Ojibwa (Anishinabe), Creek (Muskogee), Dakota (Eastern Sioux), Haida, Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), Penobscot and Tlingit.

"Through extraordinary craftsmanship, materials and creativity, the works of art in the exhibition reflect the commitment of those who created them, as well as the collectors who preserved them," says Kathleen Schrader, associate director for exhibitions and collections and the exhibition's coordinator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "The themes of this exhibition, and the amazing works of art it will display, add another dimension to the current commemoration of the growth and change of this country through such explorations as the Lewis and Clark expedition."

Among the many items on view will be a Kaigani Haida culture human face mask, circa 1820; several feather headdresses from Brazil, made in the early 19th century; several Aleut garments made from mammal intestines and esophagi; a man's shirt, possibly Nez Percé, from the Columbia Plateau region, circa 1840; a number of moccasins decorated with beading, fabric and dyed porcupine quills; and a buffalo robe from the Northern Plains region, circa 1850-75.

Manifestations of individual and cultural creativity and interaction, they demonstrate that there is no such thing as "traditional" Native American art, Schrader says.

If American Indians and Americans of foreign descent are to understand each other's cultures, "we must respectfully seek understanding of one another's art," writes one of the show's curators, John Grimes, in an essay in the exhibition catalog published by the American Federation of Arts in association with University of Washington Press.

"The capacity to share existential awareness through creativity is the essence of our humanity. Art is a gateway to intersubjectivity and empathy."

Grimes is curator of Native American art at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Sicangu Lakota artist Thomas "Red Owl" Haukaas, in another of the catalog's essays, writes: "I have hope that museums will move the public toward ever greater appreciation of Indian art objects as representing true art, not simply anthropological specimens. I, for one, would much rather see a stunningly beautiful pipe bag, woven blanket or contemporary work than ten arrowheads."

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts presentation of the exhibition is supported, in part, by the Elisabeth Shelton Gottwald Fund, the Evans Exhibition Endowment, the Fabergé Ball Endowment, The Council of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Emily S. and Coleman A. Hunter Charitable Trust.

The co-curator of the exhibition with Grimes is Christian F. Feest, professor of anthropology at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

A panel of Native Americans served as advisors for the show. They are Richard W. Hill, Sr. (Tuscarora Iroquois), professor emeritus at SUNY Buffalo; Vernon L. Chimegalrea Pikaniralria (Yupik), vice president of programs, Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage; Fred Nahwoosky (Comanche), executive director, Atlatl, Phoenix; Danyelle Means (Lakota), freelance curator, New York.

For the Richmond showing, advice and guidance has been provided by members of the Virginia Council on Indians.

Following the Richmond showing, "Uncommon Legacies" will be on view at the Peabody Essex Museum Sept. 19 through Nov. 16, 2003.

The 274-page catalog that accompanies the exhibition was written by Grimes and Feest along with Mary Lou Curran, Duane H. King, Doreen Jensen, Richard W. Hill Sr., Gerald McMaster and Ramiro Matos. It includes 162 color and 21 black-and-white illustrations, a map, a glossary of tribal names and related terms, a bibliography and an index.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Resource Library Magazine

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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