BY MARY GREGORY
A small but extraordinary collection of Native American masterpieces is in its final days at the Met Fifth Avenue. Consider a visit to this show as a concise course in Native American art history. From the second century to the 20th, from the Plains to the Southwest to the Northwest Coast, “Native American Masterpieces from the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection” highlights some of the best works ever made in each age and place. It’s like a greatest hits compilation, and not a single piece disappoints.
The exhibition caps a national tour of “Indigenous Beauty,” a show that included a wider selection from the Diker collection, organized by the American Federation of Arts. New Yorkers Charles and Valerie Diker over the course of more than 40 years developed a collection of Native American art widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive and remarkable in existence. Their focus is on aesthetic appeal, and each of the 49 pieces in the show is exquisite and worthy to stand alongside any other at The Met.
An Okvik female figure roughly the size of an open flip-phone, carved from a walrus tusk near the Bering Strait in about the second century, expresses the human form in a stylized way, as did works from many ancient cultures. A large water jar created by an ancient Puebloan potter from the area around New Mexico, is stunning in its simplicity and complexity. With clay, water, heat and vision, the artist created a vessel with a swelling, fluid shape that narrows to an elegant, petite neck. It’s painted all over with curves, angles, lines and hints of human hands (perhaps a reference to the hands that built it), in stark black and white. To modern eyes, it’s incredibly strong and appealing.
Among the works on display are weapons for hunting and objects of war, such as decorated clubs and daggers, but more of them recorded history, adorned the self while proclaiming status, enabled nourishment, healing and the care of children, and, above all, beautified a world suffused with spiritual mystery.
Louisa Keyser, also known as Dat So La Lee (ca. 1829-1925), of the Washoe people in northwestern Nevada, was the Picasso of Native American basketry. Her weaving, utilizing traditional materials and imagery, was exceptionally fine, and she achieved fame in her lifetime. There’s a lovely case featuring her basket bowl, decorated with bear claw designs, and behind it a large photograph of her with the object. Her baskets were so meticulously woven that they were capable of holding water.
Another delightful combination is a pair of beaded moccasins next to two pouches. Through their designs, they tell stories of world views and values. Through their materials, they tell a story of societal upheaval. A shoulder bag, made by an Ojibwa woman in about 1780 utilizes died porcupine quills pressed flat by the fingernail to weave its geometric patterns, as does a beautiful fire bag, also Ojibwa from about 40 years later. A Muscogee artist from Georgia or Alabama, just 10 years after that, was using glass beads, imported from Europe and traded with settlers, to decorate a pair of hide moccasins.
Some of the most stunning works are from the Northwest Coast areas of the U.S. and Canada, where ceremonial objects were understood to express great mysteries and hold great power. A Tlingit mask beautifully illustrates the ambiguous or non-existent boundary between mankind and the natural world. A human face, painted blue, sports a nose that doubles as a beak, when seen from the side. A rattle, also Tlingit, made from abalone, would be used in a healing dance, helping and hoping to realign the individual spirit with a greater spirit. Embracing and revering forms of nature in their coastal villages, Pacific Northwest societies embellished everything from spoons to harpoons and hats with depictions of the creatures around them.
A profound expression of animistic belief is the showstopper of the exhibition. In this dance mask, human fingertips circumscribe a tableau of natural forms. A Yup’ik artist from Alaska, about 100 years ago, carved his whole world in a few square inches. Earth, air and water are captured by a hand that holds a face composed of a portrait of a seal, the body of a fish, and a portion of a bird, all enclosed within a circle of bent willow branch. Food, life, the world around and a sense of awe all come through in this work that evokes an undeniable sense of magic.