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art: Native Splendor

Objects by indigenous people provide a history of artful assimilation and adaptation.


Despite the reticence by early collectors to consider such objects as art, "Uncommon Legacies" treats these samples of clothing, tools, pipes, masks and household items as aesthetic as much as functional items. The exhibition showcases work by natives of the late 18th century to mid-19th century from 38 tribes. It demonstrates how beauty finds many forms and proves that there is no singular kind of American-Indian art, as roadside trading posts might lead us to believe.

Trading-post moccasins, for example, seem primitive and clichéd compared with the elegantly beaded and stitched footwear displayed here. Several versions are adorned with ornate patterns made from glass and metal beads, while others incorporate porcupine quills that have been flattened and dyed for ornament.

Popular culture would also have us think that Native-American artists pass down the same techniques and imagery from generation to generation. In contact with other tribes and non-natives who came as explorers, settlers, missionaries and soldiers, Native-American artists incorporate influences both large and small.

One of the most blatant examples of outside influence in this exhibition is a coat from around 1824. It was designed in the tradition of a Russian garment but made using the Aleut technique of sewing mammal intestines and esophagi together for a weather-resistant material. Embellished with decorative stitches and carefully sewn to form horizontal bands, the material has the color and texture of raw silk.

Other than the Russian-inspired coat and a few other items like a spectacular feather headdress, the objects in "Uncommon Legacies" don't wow the audience with flash but inspire a patient eye. Because most tribes never created for aesthetic purpose alone, beauty and function were one in the same; how that union happens is worth studying.

Myths and stereotypes that non-natives have developed and fostered about Native Americans have underrated the value of their culture's artistic life, and worse, their value as a culture in general. "Uncommon Legacies" deliberately points out that by allowing outside influences to affect their creative endeavors, these indigenous cultures can claim a rich history that overlaps our own history more than most of us realize.

Situated adjacent to "Uncommon Legacies" is a companion exhibition titled "As Long As the Waters Flow: Native Americans in the South and East," a collection of contemporary black-and-white photographs of Southeastern Native Americans by Carolyn DeMeritt. By featuring faces of living Native Americans, "As Long As the Waters Flow" declares the native population very much alive. Among the portraits is an endearing image of late Pamunkey Chief Tecumseh Deerfoot Cook, who died in April. S

"Uncommon Legacies: Native American Art from the Peabody Essex Museum" and "As Long As the Waters Flow: Native Americans in the South and East" runs through July 20 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2800 Grove Ave. Visit for more information.

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