The Denver Art Museum’s new American Indian galleries

The museum's American Indian galleries now attribute as much as possible the works on display to the individual artist instead of to the collective tribe.

American Indian artists of the past are finally having their Picasso moment, said Judith H. Dobrzynski in The New York Times. When the Denver Art Museum last month reopened the doors of its American Indian galleries after a seven-month overhaul, visitors with keen reading vision might have noticed that the wall labels annotating the museum’s world-class collection had undergone a “revolution.” Out was the practice of attributing singularly striking pots and ceremonial capes to tribes only. In were celebrations of century-old work by the Hopi potter Nampeyo, and of 1930s masks from Kwakwaka’wakw carver George Walkus. Many other artists hadn’t escaped anonymity: Of 550 works by deceased artists currently on display, some 500 are headlined with the phrase “Artist not known.” But the curator’s intent was clear. Denver “has now embraced attribution more completely than any other institution,” and it means to grow the trend label by label.

The moment might not mean all you’d imagine it does, said America Meredith in the art-history blog Ahalenia. Because Westerners have tended to exoticize American Indian art, any movement that “humanizes” it is welcome. But “Western notions of the lone artist superstar don’t translate well to the Native American art world,” where many artists don’t even sign their work. Because family and friends tend to keep one’s ego “in check,” it’d be hard to imagine the emergence of “an Indian Damien Hirst.” A large work-in-progress at the galleries’ entrance tells us, though, that the story here is still developing, said Joyce Davis in the Loveland, Colo., Reporter-Herald. Day by day, Pueblo sculptor Roxanne Swentzell is erecting a 10-foot-tall figure—using mud, so that her creation won’t last. “Just as all of us return to Earth,” she says, “so will this Mud Woman one day…purposefully.”

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