A slowly advancing movement within North American museums is the explicit, holistic, and permanent integration of Colonial and Native American art and culture, side by side in the same space, to tell a more full — and more true — narrative of the country.
In Canada, where it began, such efforts are just a few years old; in the United States, they start in earnest with the Peabody Essex Museum in February, when it reopens its American galleries with those two solitudes thoroughly entwined for the first time.
The new galleries will comprise hundreds of objects, dating from as far back as 10,000 years ago, and as recent as last year. With the intention of overlapping stories long told as distant parallel lines, direct comparisons in the gallery space will be many.
Karen Kramer, the museum’s curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture, and associate curator Sarah Chasse offered three key pairings in advance of the February opening that help capture what the galleries hope to achieve.
To be clear: This is often stern stuff. “Some of these topics are not easy to process,” Kramer said. “There are difficult histories. We were intentional with the pairings, to try to give visitors the time and the means to process some of the harder realities.”
1. Tompkins Harrison Matteson, “Trial of George Jacobs, Sr. for Witchcraft,” 1855; and Jason Garcia, “Victory, 1680-1692,” from the “Tewa Tales of Suspense!” series, 2019-20
Garcia, who is Santa Clara Pueblo Tewa, adopted a pulpy mid-20th-century comic book aesthetic painted on ceramic tile to capture a significant and largely unknown passage of American history: the 1680 Pueblo revolt, in which his ancestors managed to repel Spanish colonists after decades of oppression and enslavement. It’s important enough to the Pueblo people that some consider it “the first American revolution,” Kramer said, though it was short-lived; the Spanish regained control in 1692.
The tile appears in a section called “Heroes and History,” playing on the dominant thread of American history being driven by singular heroic figure narratives. Garcia plays along: Po’pay, who coordinated the revolt, is his comic-book superhero.
Garcia’s piece rubs up against a more familiar kind of American hero’s tale: Tompkins Harrison Matteson’s “Trial of George Jacobs, Sr. for Witchcraft,” from 1855. The Salem witch trials and the Pueblo revolt were essentially concurrent (the trials took place from 1692-93) but have wildly different profiles in the collective imagination. Matteson’s painting, a courtroom scene depicting the noble suffering of Jacobs, an innocent, has been reproduced in history textbooks dozens of times — an emblem of a dark moment in American history, and a warning for the future. The Pueblo revolt, the product of intentions just as dark and more systemic, has barely been depicted at all. “In both cases, we’re looking at how artists retell history through art,” said Chasse. “But it really poses the question: Whose stories do we already know, and whose stories still need to be told?”
2. Hank Willis Thomas, “Rich Black Specimen #460,” 2017; and David Bradley, “American Dream II,” 2001
“Myths and Motives,” another section of the collection display, offers a critical look at artists’ roles in promoting or even building the national narratives that underscore political motives. In the case of westward expansion in the 19th century, the role was outsize — just look at the work of Albert Bierstadt, whose grandiose, de-peopled paintings of the American West depicted an untouched Eden ripe for the taking.
The truth was more complicated, of course, the de-peopling having been the result of a US military campaign to slaughter and relocate hundreds of thousands of Native Americans to make way for westing settlers who had been granted former Native American lands by the government for free. Bradley, who is enrolled White Earth Ojibwe, painted a lament for the capstone of that project: the transnational railway, which brought settlers in larger numbers ever more swiftly west, devastating ecosystems — and with them, Native American ways of life — with ruthless efficiency. A Native American man racing futilely alongside the speeding locomotive makes that plain.
Shown alongside Thomas’s work, a slim black powder-coated aluminum silhouette of a man in active flight, the pair highlights the twin colonial exploitations that underpinned American prosperity and expansion. The shackles and chains slung over his shoulder strip away any ambiguity: The silhouette is a direct appropriation of a 19th-century printer’s template used in advertisements for runaway slaves in newspapers of the day.
3. Jamie Okuma, Boots, 2013-14, and Thomas Seymour, Dressing chest, about 1810
These two objects, placed within inches of each other in the new installation, are projections of craft and opulence from two very different sources: Okuma, a contemporary artist and fashion designer who is Luiseño and Shoshone/Bannock, enrolled at the La Jolla Band of Mission Indians, and Seymour, perhaps the most sought-after cabinet maker in post-revolutionary Boston, who catered to the extravagant tastes of a new nation’s burgeoning elite.
Where they meet in sheer mastery, they diverge intensely in form and meaning. Okuma has studded a pair of thigh-high boots made by the French designer Christian Louboutin with thousands of vintage beads, infusing a high-fashion object with Indigenous techniques and motifs as a means to declare her identity in a realm where Indigenous people, beyond occasional, unfortunate appropriations, are largely absent. Swallows, in flight alongside the floral motifs ringing the boot leg, connect Okuma to land and to place. She once found an injured swallow that she nursed to health; it returned to her every spring migration.
The Seymour chest, meanwhile, was commissioned by Salem’s Elizabeth Derby West, one of the wealthiest women in America, in the early 19th century. Made of mahogany, an exotic hardwood likely harvested using the labor of enslaved people, the chest, while impeccably crafted, is a symbol of the status-seeking consumption of a nascent, ambitious nation eager to place itself on equal footing with its European peers.
As a pair, there’s a profound paradox of intent: What end does fine craft serve? For Okuma, it’s personal, rooted in the specifics of identity of place; for West, it was aspirational, a showy display of status, willfully disconnected from anything but generalized opulence and fashionable trend. That’s as American as it gets.
NATIVE AMERICAN AND AMERICAN ART
Permanent collection. Peabody Essex Museum. 161 Essex St., Salem. 978-745-9500, pem.org