They date back to 100 A.D. to as recently as the early 20th century. They come from the east coast to California, and from the southwest to the Arctic. And the works of Native American art are on display at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica.
“So you get a wonderful survey of America’s first artists and the work that they were doing through the centuries.”
Miranda Hofelt is curator of 19th century American art at the museum.
She says the exhibition features the cream of the crop from the renowned 900 piece Thaw Collection at the Fenimore art museum in Cooperstown. More than 40 objects showcase works in various media, including sculpture, painting, basketry, textile, and ceramics. Hofelt says Native American art is uniquely important because it documents historical shifts over time.
“It derives its meaning from the immediate conditions of its production and reception. So we get a real sense of the history of different cultures, different people, through looking at and enjoying these exquisite examples that were produced by a particular culture at a particular historic moment.”
For example, Hofelt says you can see the influences of the European Americans in a painting called “War Record” from 1880. She says it’s clear the buffalo population had declined by this time because there’s a change in medium.
“So what you see is that rather than the scene painted on buffalo skin, it’s painted on cowhide. Domesticated cattle is something that’s been brought in to the region and so we can see that specifically the materials are now shifting and we see Native American artists really negotiating with the changes within their culture.”
Hofelt says pieces from various tribes also illustrate their different purposes.
“We have this wonderful little polar bear effigy that’s maybe 5 inches long and it’s something that you can imagine was handled by a human hand back in 100 A.D. That served a very different purpose and meaning to that culture than a summer costume that a Woodlands region artist produced for a European-American audience.”
Hofelt says they went out of their way to feature pieces from Seneca and Oneida nation artists. She says the free exhibit is being well-received in Utica after a strong reception in New York City, where people lined up around the block to pay $20 to see it. The exhibit runs through December 30th at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute.