At the Met, protest and poetry on water
In a striking two-minute video titled “River (The Water Serpent)” in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum, we see a drone filmed of a snowy landscape where a crowd has gathered. Each of its members holds a vertical mirror panel. Together, at the right time, they place the panels horizontally above their heads, reflective side up to the sky, and begin a procession. At first it’s loose and builds up and swirls around. Then it tightens into a stream of light, gaining speed and spiraling like a whirlwind.
The landscape is an expanse of prairie on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that spans the border between North Dakota and South Dakota. Filming time was December 2016. The procession, designed by two Native American artists, Cannupa Hanska Luger and Rory Wakemup, was a combined act of protest and preservation.
He was executed by some of the hundreds of protesters who had come as ‘water protectors’, intent on stopping the US government’s plan to lay a major oil pipeline near Black Rock, a move which could potentially poison the reservation’s water supply, and would certainly desecrate its ancestral cemeteries. The mirrored panels were shields designed to shield the protectors from the resistance they would encounter and give their attackers a hard look at themselves.
The video is one of 40 works that make up “Water Memories,” a poetic, faceted pocket show about the material and symbolic role of water in Native American life. Curated by Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purépecha), Associate Curator of Native American Art at the Met, it combines traditional objects from the permanent collection with modern and contemporary loan pieces, including some from non-Native artists.
A fleet of 19th century miniature canoe models, originating from the northwest coast to the forests of the northeast, establishes the show’s bi-coastal range and suggests the role of water as a medium for commercial and cultural networking . The equivalent of long-haul trucks, Native American boats transported raw materials and crafts – baskets, ceramics, luxury beads – up and down river highways and across what is now called North America. North.
Ideas about values and governance, about the past and the future, about life in this world and others were also conveyed. Wisconsin-born Ho-Chunk artist Truman T. Lowe (1944-2019) paid homage to the cosmopolitan nature of water travel in his 1993 “Feather Canoe,” an openwork boat made of willow branches and filled with white feathers. Suspended from the ceiling and lit from within, it casts patches of shadow and light on the floor of the gallery.
Acquired by the Met last year, it’s a beautiful thing and seems to have had personal meaning for Lowe, curator of contemporary art at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. “If I Have a Religion” , he said, “It must be canoeing. I canoe wherever there is water. It puts me in a totally different state of mind and gives me everything I need to exist.
A strip of ocean is visible in the background of a large, eerie triptych painting from 1989 entitled “Possession on the Beach” by Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), an artist of one-quarter Luiseño descent who been both admired and reviled. for his popular “Indian” portraits. (He claimed both critical responses were equally cool with him. He just wanted people to keep looking.)
By contrast, the watery element is omnipresent in Cara Romero’s “Water Memory” (Southwest Chemehuevi), a 2015 large-format photograph of Santa Clara Pueblo corn dancers in ceremonial costume performing underwater, as if immersed in a mystical realm where beauty and danger, rise and fall, are inseparable.
Jones’ image is installed alongside several photographs of German-born American cartographer Henry P. Bosse (1844-1893). Bosse was hired by the United States Army Corps of Engineers to photograph sections of the Mississippi River, including (though he may not have been aware of it) areas from which Native Americans had been forcibly removed . He approached his task primarily as an artistic project and, over a decade, produced hundreds of carefully composed azure views. (Eight are on display). The army’s interest in the project was of course quite different. His job was to turn the river into a government-run transportation route and he needed photographic data to do that.
The image of Jones’ marker tree pays homage to a guiding instrument. Bosse’s images of sky and water were, whatever his intentions, instruments of top-down control, valuable now as documents of the vanishing tribal terrain.
A display of a dozen pretty glass whale oil lamps also has a story to tell. For Native Americans in coastal areas, whaling has long been a form of subsistence hunting (or harvesting in the case of whales stranded on shore). Among white American settlers in the early 19th century, whaling was a huge, booming and violent business. Whale oil was in frenzied demand as a fuel and lubricant, and ambergris, a by-product of the animal’s digestive process, as a perfume fixative.
A 2021 ceramic sculpture by Shinnecock artist Courtney M. Leonard speaks to this story. The Shinnecocks, with tribal lands on the eastern end of what is now Long Island, were historically an ocean fishing community. Leonard’s sculpture, a ghostly pile of hollow clay shapes resembling sperm whale teeth, is a tribute to this history. But it is also a memorial to the disastrous and ongoing ecological effects that 19th century industrial-scale whaling introduced.
Near this elegiac work, Norby floats one of his exhibition’s historic grace notes in the form of a small 1929 painting titled “Reaching Waves” by American modernist Arthur Dove (1880-1946). Dove spent the last two decades of his life on Long Island with his wife, painter Helen Torr. And they were dedicated water people, living on a boat most of the time. Dove’s incredibly delicate photo is from those years.
There are also other highlights to linger on: a pre-1850 miniature birchbark canoe, filled with bird-feather oars, silk sails and a small carved fish, fishing of the day ; a 1970s denim jacket embroidered with a bright red thunderbird, a longtime emblem of Indigenous activism; and a ceramic bowl made by the great potter of San Ildefonso Pueblo Maria Martinez (1887-1980), and painted with a swirling image of the serpent deity Tewa Pueblo Avanyu, the guardian of water.
Avanyu takes us back to the Standing Rock video, which anchors a time travel show in the present. Last May, Norby invited members of local Native American communities to participate in a Mirror Shield workshop at the Met. It was led by Luger, who also posted a brief instructional video online and whose idea for the shields was originally inspired by news photographs of Ukrainian women holding mirrors in front of riot police during of pro-democracy protests in 2013, “hoping to achieve their goal”. humanity and making them less violent,” writes Nick Estates (Kul Wicasa/Lower Brule Sioux Tribe), one of many members of the Indigenous community who wrote personal responses to the art in the exhibit in the form of wall labels.
All shields produced by the workshop will be shipped to water protectors after the show closes. Until then, several flank the entrance to the Met Gallery, framing the art and history beyond, and reflecting us as we approach the show in a fragmented, multi-angled way, as would a moving water or memory.
Through April 2, 2023, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue, (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.