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My WSJ Piece on “Shapeshifting” at Peabody Essex: A Photo-and-Video Companion

You can now read online my piece that will be on tomorrow’s “Leisure & Arts” page of the Wall Street Journal. Artifacts to Artworks is my take on the Peabody Essex Museum’s Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art.

Let me supplement this article with my own photographs illustrating the works that I discuss. Here’s the “may not be suitable for children” piece that opens the show (and my article). It sure looks kid-friendly, until you step inside. Good luck trying to restrain your kids from entering this alluring “tipi”:

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Kent Monkman, “Théâtre de Cristal,” 2007, Glenbow Museum, Alberta

Projected on a fake buckskin rug beneath the tipi’s chandelier is a savage silent-movie parody of old Hollywood Westerns. This homoerotic, full-frontal film fantasy bears a title that apparently was not fit for a family newspaper—“Group of Seven Inches.” It begins with this romantic encounter between the artist’s drag-queen alter ego (in stiletto heels) and two loin-clothed white men, one of whom is pictured below:

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But now let’s move on. Here’s the other “bookend” to the show, which alone occupies the final gallery:

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Brian Jungen, “Cetology,” 2002, Vancouver Art Gallery

Here’s a close-up of the plastic chairs of which this “whale skeleton” is composed:

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This is the deerskin pouch that I described as “ravishing”:

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Northeastern artist, Pouch, late 1600s to mid-1700s, Peabody Essex Museum

The PEM loses points, though, for displaying this masterpiece in such a way that you cannot see the equally beautiful (and conceptually important) decoration on the other side. I managed to slip my camera between the case and the wall, to bring you this blurry shot of the porcupine-quill embroidery that the catalogue illustrates and describes as “double-curves [that] manifest the desire and necessity for balance in one’s life”:

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At the press preview, Karen Kramer Russell, the PEM’s curator of Native American art and culture, described this Chilkat blanket from her own museum’s collection as the oldest known example in the world:

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Chilkat Blanket, c. 1832, Peabody Essex Museum

But wait a minute! Yesterday I saw this one at the Metropolitan Museum, which claims to be older!

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Chilkat Blanket, British Columbia, c. 1825, private collection (displayed at Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Here’s one of the strangest objects in the PEM’s show, which, as I noted in my article, was one of many demonstrating the effect of cross-cultural influences on Native American artists. It has an Egyptian-inspired headdress and forelegs, and a Haida face:

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Simeon Stilthda, “Sphinx,” c. 1875, British Museum

Speaking of cross-cultural influences, Tlingit/Aleut artist Nicholas Galanin‘s engrossing two-part dance video, “Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan” (“We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That Has Been Left in Our Care”), 2006, combines a traditional Tlingit song with modern dance in one clip, and contemporary electronic music with tribal dance in the other.

Here’s my conversation with Nicholas, as we viewed his piece together:

All photos and video by Lee Rosenbaum.

an ArtsJournal blog