Out of ancient Indian traditions

Friday July 13, 2012


When Dalton papermaker Zenas Crane was buying Native American artifacts for the new Berkshire Museum he was to open in Pittsfield in 1903, he consulted today's equivalent of a mail-order catalog to find them.

"We purchased a good part of (the core collection) from an expedition company," explained the museum's present-day interpreter of collections, Maria Mingalone.

"It wasn't as if Zenas Crane or somebody associated with the museum was particularly interested in Native American material and was traveling across the country and learning about it and buying it."

The New York expedition company "would send us a checklist of what was available and ... we would be advised to buy X, Y and Z," she said.

That's how it was often done in the late 19th century, as small cities like Pittsfield were investing in culture and new museums. Each was expected to exhibit ancient Egyptian, Roman and Native American art, along with other subjects, she said. Whether the objects themselves were outstanding, was often beside the point. Many ended up in storage.

Now, those old pots, headdresses and beaded pouches have been dusted off for a new exhibition, "Rethink! American Indian Art at Berkshire Museum."

They are being shown along with new work by six contemporary Native American artists to illustrate how traditional forms can evolve and address issues in today's culture.

" 'Rethink!' challenges many of the preconceptions and stereotypes of American Indian art," said Mingalone. It "demonstrates that Indians have not disappeared and that Indian artists continue to express themselves in a contemporary world."

"Rethink" went on view last week, but has its Family Opening Day on Saturday. It asks viewers to consider whether traditions must remain static in order to preserve a cultural heritage, or whether they can change to represent evolving ideas and still be considered traditions.. It also explores crosscurrent influences in Native American and European art. Beads, for example, widely identified with Indian culture, were actually a European import, said Mingalone on a tour of the show last week. Indians traditionally created raised patterns on clothing and accessories with dyed porcupine quills.

The six contemporary artists in the show take tradition a step further, using beadwork, pottery, basketry and dance forms in surprising new ways.

Diego Romero, for example, a ceramics artist descended from Cochiti Pueblo Indians, makes pots in traditional pueblo shapes, with painted narratives resembling those on ancient Greek bowls and vases, but he uses comic book characters instead of classical ones.

Teri Greeves, whose heritage is Kiowa, works primarily with beads. She is showing pairs of athletic sneakers embroidered with beads, as well as wall hangings that tell stories.

Others work in paint, mixed media or video just like any other contemporary artist.

They were selected for their modern uses of traditional forms by Mingalone and cocurator Margaret Archuleta, a native art history scholars based in New Mexico.

The six artists and Archuleta visited the Berkshire Museum in March and spent several days examining the Native American collection and possible connections with their own artwork. The entire collaboration in Pittsfield was documented on film, clips of which will be screened as part of the exhibition.

None of the artists created pieces specifically for the show, but they had a voice in selecting their own and the museum's artworks to go in it. Mingalone and Archuleta made the final choices.

The exhibition was initiated by former Berkshire Museum Director Stuart Chase, who previously headed the Rockwell Museum of Western Art in Corning, N.Y.

Initially, Mingalone said, the idea was to link the Berkshire Museum's seldom-seen American Indian artifacts with its strong collection of Hudson River School paintings of the same period.

But after Chase put Mingalone in touch with Archuleta and the two women met in New Mexico, the focus shifted away from the paintings and toward contemporary Indian artists.

The result of that collaboration will be on view through Jan. 6, 2013.


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