A new exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery begins with a bowl and ends with a basket — both works by Mohegan artists — to acknowledge the Quinnipiac land the University is built upon.

This exhibit, titled “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art,” will go on view Friday, Nov.1. The YUAG’s first major exhibition of indigenous North American art brings together objects from the YUAG, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It is entirely student-curated.

“It’s really about relationships between the four themes in the title,” said Leah Shrestinian ’18, one of the primary curators of the exhibit. “It’s about the artists’ relationships to place, nation, other generations of artists and significant beings, as well as their relationships to Yale.”

The exhibit’s 96 pieces include basketry, beadwork, drawings, photography, pottery, textiles and woodcarvings by artists such as Marie Watt ART ’96, Maria Martinez and Will Wilson. The objects date from the early 19th century to the present.

According to Shrestinian, the exhibit resulted from student protests in 2015 and 2016 about race and representation on campus. She said that prior to this exhibit, there was a “glaring absence” of indigenous art at the YUAG, while the Peabody misrepresented indigenous art in their exhibits.

In response to these issues, the YUAG and Peabody offered the Native American Art Initiative Summer Internship in 2016. Shrestinian and Katherine McCleary ’18, another primary curator of the exhibit, were chosen for this internship.

As part of their internship, the two students compiled a list of best practices regarding the presentation of indigenous art for the two institutions. According to McCleary, their research inspired the YUAG to offer the students an opportunity to curate an exhibit.

Shrestinian and McCleary worked with Joseph Zordan ’19 to put the exhibition together. McCleary described Yale’s collections as “very broad.” She said that there was no unifying theme across the collections.

“We decided to just look at the objects and think about what the objects were trying to tell us,” McCleary said.

Shrestinian added that the objects link to the four themes of place, nations, generations and beings, through their material, design and historical backgrounds. She said that the curators are trying to show artistic connections among communities.

The curators decided to use bright colors throughout the exhibition. This demonstrates that indigenous people are “still here” and “alive” in the 21st century, McCleary said. The color choice also moves away from muted earth tones to highlight the contemporary presence of prominent indigenous artists. The curators have left the space open so visitors feel like they are in a gallery space, as opposed to a natural history or museum study space. This choice emphasizes the objects on view as art, not historical artifacts.

McCleary said that they grouped objects across different themes because they want “visitors to be able to make their own connections between objects.”

Yet Shrestinian noted that this exhibition is only an “immediate” project. Shrestinian and McCleary also offered long-term recommendations to the YUAG and the Peabody. These recommendations include hiring more indigenous staff, creating an indigenous North American art department, encouraging the movement of resources to indigenous art at Yale, opening faculty positions with a focus on indigenous art in the history department and creating an advisory council with indigenous art scholars.

“This exhibition could signal a beginning and move toward making those longer-term changes,” Shrestinian said.

The gallery opening on Friday will be followed by an opening reception on Saturday. The reception will feature a keynote speech given by Watt titled “First Teachers Balance the Universe.” There will also be a panel conversation on Nov. 21.

According to Zordan, now is an “interesting” time for indigenous representation. He cited the recent exhibitions in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to note that the Western art world and market are beginning to take indigenous art more seriously.

“I hope in the future at Yale there is an even stronger presence of indigenous North American Art, not just in the gallery, but also represented on campus,” Shrestinian said.

The exhibition will remain on view until June 21, 2020

Freya Savla |