Native American exhibit at the Met Museum examines the politics of water: NPR

Cara Romero, “Water Memory, 2015

Cara Romero/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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Cara Romero/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Native American exhibit at the Met Museum examines the politics of water: NPR

Cara Romero, “Water Memory, 2015

Cara Romero/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Perhaps the most surprising object in the “Water Memories” exhibition, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is a denim jacket. It’s a knock-off from Wrangler, with a red felt thunderbird on the back and a line of blue beads along the sleeves and waist.

Still, the exhibit is about the significance of water to Native American tribes, and how it is depicted in their art. How does a jacket compare?

“The Thunderbird is a sacred image to the Anishinaabe people,” said Patricia Norby Marroquin, curator of the exhibition. “It actually represents a thundercloud.”

The beads represent drops of water, she said. The thunderbird and beads were added by then 19-year-old Rick St. Germaine and his mother, Saxon St. Germaine, of The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin.

Rick St. Germaine wore the jacket when he participated in the Native American occupation of Wisconsin’s Winter Dam in the early 1970s. Norby saw the jacket in a small museum in the Midwest and knew she needed it in the exhibit, as she wanted to represent different generations of Native Americans and explore how their art appealed to their activism around water.

Native American exhibit at the Met Museum examines the politics of water: NPR

Owned by Rick St. Germaine, this denim jacket represents thunderclouds—and strength, too. It was leaned towards the exhibit by the Chippewa Valley Museum.

Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Native American exhibit at the Met Museum examines the politics of water: NPR

Owned by Rick St. Germaine, this denim jacket represents thunderclouds—and strength, too. It was leaned towards the exhibit by the Chippewa Valley Museum.

Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Norby is Purepecha; her family is from a pueblo in mexico. She is the museum’s first curator of Native American art, and “Water Memories” is the first exhibit she curated at the Met.

“I think [the exhibit] beautifully reveals your indigenous and ecological approach,” Sylvia Yount, the curator of the American wing of the museum, told Norby as they gave a tour.

Just a few years ago, Native American art in the museum was lumped together with art from Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, among others. But in 2017, Charles and Valerie Diker promised the museum significant donations, donations and loans from their collection. As a result, the museum moved its Native American art to where it always belonged, Yount said: the American wing.

“Water Memories” complements the intricate beaded clothing and other objects in the “Art of Native America” ​​galleries. But “Water Memories” tells a story.

“As you walk through the exhibit you will realize that what we do creates a flow, a flow of stories and memories,” Norby said.

The exhibition explores the many uses of water – for fishing, travel, ritual and play. But it also shows how political water is. US energy companies have flooded tribal lands by building dams; a photo by Carla Romero shows two Native Americans submerged in water, “still and floating in a drowned landscape,” says the artist’s website. And a documentary-style video by Cannupa Hanska Luger shows a line of “water protectors” holding their mirrored shields at the Standing Rock Reserve. They slide over the snow to create a spiral – it represents a giant water snake.

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Norby’s scholarship as an art historian is based on environmental activism, she said. Her research focused on the links between the agricultural industry, the visual arts and water rights in the Southwest. Taking a political stance may be new to the Met, she said, but not to her.

“I want people to leave with the realization that we all have a role to play in protecting freshwater resources,” Norby said. “That we all have an intimate connection with water, and that without fresh water we will not survive.”

All objects are somehow connected to water – the finely crafted glass lamps once contained oil that came from whales; the intricate baskets were made by softening the reeds in water. But the exhibit is in a fine arts museum, not an anthropology museum, so there are plenty of beautiful, provocative objects, like a canoe frame filled with Truman T. Lowe’s feathers; a triptych of a beach landscape with a sinister, dark angel in the middle by Fritz Scholder; and a pile of what looks like shiny, hollow whale teeth on a weathered dock.

That piece, by Shinnecock artist Courtney M. Leonard, is one of Norby’s favorites because it’s so personal. And she loves the aesthetic of those teeth.

“They glow. They’re beautiful. They’re pearly. You almost want to touch them because of their smooth texture,” she said. Then she laughed. “But we strongly advise people not to do that here at the museum.”

Native American exhibit at the Met Museum examines the politics of water: NPR

The painting “Possession on the Beach” by Fritz Scholder looms over a gleaming pile of whale teeth, titled “Beach Logbook 22/Breach #2” by Courtney M. Leonard.

Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Native American exhibit at the Met Museum examines the politics of water: NPR

The painting “Possession on the Beach” by Fritz Scholder looms over a gleaming pile of whale teeth, titled “Beach Logbook 22/Breach #2” by Courtney M. Leonard.

Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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