Professor pushes for more Native art on campus

The Yale University Art Gallery has Asian, African and even Indo-Pacific departments, but it is largely lacking in collections from closer to home — American Indian art. Now, one professor is trying to change that.

This semester, Ned Blackhawk, one of Yale’s two American Indian professors, is working to make American Indian art more present on campus. Blackhawk, who joined the Department of History faculty this past September and is currently teaching an American studies class called “Native American Art History,” said he thinks the art gallery and the Peabody Museum should acquire and display more American Indian art. In response to Blackhawk’s efforts, the art gallery is preparing to display all of its American Indian art pieces — most of which are currently in storage — beginning Feb. 2.

Ned Blackhawk is one of two Native American professors at Yale.
Joseph Breen
Ned Blackhawk is one of two Native American professors at Yale.

“Yale is famous for its museums, for its art history, for its arts community,” Blackhawk said. “But the Yale University Art Gallery has a very limited collection of Indian art, which is something that is still important and thriving for the Native American community.”

Indeed, of the art gallery’s 185,000-piece collection, only 41 works are American Indian art. While the Peabody Museum’s anthropology department has a more extensive collection of American Indian artifacts, hardly any of these is from the past century, and the objects represent ethnographic holdings— objects used by living people — rather than art, Blackhawk said. Though there are more than a thousand American Indian baskets at the Peabody, there is only one piece of two-dimensional art by a contemporary American Indian artist at the art gallery, Blackhawk said.

This semester, he is using his course — which examines American Indian artwork from the past century and will include trips to the art gallery, the Peabody and the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library — to set up an exhibition in a studio at the gallery.

Kate Ezra, curator of education and academic affairs at the art gallery, said Blackhawk approached the gallery at the beginning of the semester. While the regular exhibition calendar is set up years in advance, Ezra presented the option of a study gallery — a small gallery used for a specific class — as a solution.

While few of the gallery’s American Indian art pieces are currently on display at the gallery, all 41 — including portraits of American Indian leaders by John Trumbull, pottery by contemporary American Indian sculptor Maria Martinez and Fritz Schoelder’s “Lithograph” — will soon be exhibited at one of the studio galleries used for educational exhibitions, Ezra said.

“I think the study gallery is a great opportunity to show works of art that don’t usually get included in our permanent installation,” Ezra said. “We can bring out works of art that the public doesn’t know we have.”

She added that the curators for the American decorative arts department are hoping to incorporate American Indian art into the permanent installation after the gallery renovations are completed in 2012.

Though the Peabody has a much larger collection of American Indian objects, they are categorized as archaeological or ethnographic pieces, rather than works of art, on the Peabody’s Web site. Blackhawk said the Peabody collection focuses more on South America and the Caribbean than North America, and has few American Indian artifacts from the 20th century.

But Robert Colten, senior collections manager in the Peabody’s anthropology department, listed pipes, baskets, war clubs and moccasins among the Peabody’s collection of American Indian art, which he said the Peabody does not differentiate from artifacts.

Michele Keene ’10, a history of art major taking Blackhawk’s course, said she thinks American Indian art is becoming more and more important.

“Native American art is at an interesting point right now, with the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. [in 2004],” Keene said. “Many still think that Native American art is just blankets and pottery, and it is that partially, but [Blackhawk’s] class shows that there is so much more to it.”

Yale’s only other American Indian professor, Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, is on sabbatical this year.

Comments

  • dave gibboni

    I’m going to bet that there are more than two ‘native American’ professors at Yale. If you mean ‘American Indian,’ then say so. Contrary to the PC lexicon, ‘native American’ means born in the United States. I agree that ‘American Indian’ is a misnomer, but ‘native American’ is no better.