Powerful Images: Portrayals of Native America
Powerful Images: Portrayals of Native America, a thought-provoking multimedia exhibition about the perceptions and stereotypes surrounding Native American images in cultural history, opens November 13, 1999, at the Heard Museum.
"This major traveling exhibition is a wonderful opportunity for the Heard Museum, and the state of Arizona, to explore our own individualized concepts of Native America," says Ann Marshall, interim director of the Heard Museum. "It also exemplifies the Heard Museum' s ongoing commitment to cross-cultural understanding by presenting high-caliber exhibitions that appeal to all ages in a manner that is both entertaining and educational."
Powerful Images is a collaborative project of the Museums West Consortium, and pulls from the museums' cumulative wealth of material offering both Native and non-Native American perspectives. The Museums West Consortium is a cooperative organization consisting of 10 museums across western North America. The Heard Museum is a founding member of the consortium and has been involved in Powerful Images since the exhibition's formative stages.
Incorporating material ranging from paintings and sculpture to children's toys and neon signs, Powerful Images examines the symbolism related to popular images of Native Americans in literature, art, film and advertising, and conversely presents comparisons with how Native people represent themselves through their own artistic traditions. Traditional and contemporary works by artists representing a number of Western tribes are a major feature of the exhibition. The 4,000-square-foot exhibition contains video and audio excerpts from oral histories and other programs for all ages.
"Despite the diversity of Native North American cultures, Native Americans have been alternately stereotyped, miscast and romanticized," says Byron Price, president of Museums West and director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. "Powerful Images aims to encourage visitors to test their perceptions of Native Americans and to begin to see how their concepts have been formed and generalized."
Artists, writers, anthropologists and politicians have over the centuries helped to shape generalized views of North America's Native people through their images, analyses and prejudices about who Indian people are and how to know and appreciate them. Too often, the results manipulated Indian cultures. In contrast, artistic works by Native people may serve as reflections of cultural ideas, beliefs and knowledge. Powerful Images juxtaposes art about Native people with art by Native people, and, in the process, provides museum visitors with new insights.
"Since the first Euro-American artists and scientists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries visited Native peoples of North America and collected objects representative of their cultures. the traditional arts of American Indian people have been categorized, analyzed and defined by non-Native scholars," says Emma Hansen, the exhibition's co-curator and curator of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center's Plains Indian Museum. "For the early explorers, including Lewis and Clark, and the artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, their field collections of hide clothing, ornaments, painted hides and other materials were specimens they used to describe and illustrate the Indians they had met."
One such item is the Plains eagle feather bonnet. Over time, the traditional significance and symbolism of this object has been reinterpreted, simplified or distorted. Among Northern Plains tribes, eagle feather bonnets were reserved for men of high status as symbols of their leadership and skills as warriors. While tribes from other regions wore a variety of headwear, the timeless image of the Plains warrior on horseback in his flowing feather bonnet -- as portrayed in novels, Wild West shows and Hollywood films -- has come to represent all Indian people and the American West.
Native American imagery is an enduring part of the symbolism of the American West, and the material presented within Powerful Images will encourage Visitors to compare their own perceptions and definitions of Native American cultures against art and objects presenting both the real and mythological.
The exhibition and its North American presentation are made possible by Ford Motor Company. Additional funding has been provided by The Arizona Republic, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, both federal agencies, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
A 160-page catalogue, organized around the exhibition themes, features scholarly essays and photographs of objects and art from the exhibition. It is available in the Heard Museum Shop and Bookstore in paperback and hardcover.
The exhibition began a two-year tour in January 1998 and is being displayed at eight of the consortium's 10 members: (click on the museum name to see our article for that museum's exhibition)
Museums West members participating in the exhibition's organization but unable to serve as hosts are the Rockwell Museum (Corning, New York), and the Amon Carter Museum (Fort Worth, Texas.).
Images from top to bottom: Frederick Remington (1861-1909), The Cheyenne, 1902, Buffalo Bill Historical Center; Willard Stone, Cherokee Mary, National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center; Oscar Howe, Yankton, (1915-1983), Sundance, 1983, Collection of the Heard Museum; Headdress and shirt worn by actor John Sitting Bull in film, Autry Museum of Western Heritage.
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