Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art at the Peabody Essex Museum

Rebecca Belmore (born 1960), Anishinaabe; Fringe, 2008; Inkjet print on paper; 21 x 63 inches (53.3 x 160 cm); Collection of Catherine Sullivan-Kropa and William Kropa; © Rebecca Belmore, image courtesy Rebecca Belmore, photograph by Henri Robideau.

A terrific dialogue is currently unfolding in the galleries of the Peabody Essex Museum, with an exhibition that explores links between historic and contemporary Native American art. Featuring works drawn from worldwide collections, Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art, takes us on an unforgettable, celebratory journey that transcends boundaries and erases stereotypes along its path.

A concept in Native cultures, shapeshifting refers to the ability of humans changing into animals or supernatural beings and vice versa. In essence, it refers to the idea that creativity has always been part of Native cultures.

“…Native American art has always taken cultural knowledge and metaphors and refreshed them with new ideas and forms[1]” writes Curator Karen Kramer Russell in the exhibition catalog. In the past, “…museum exhibitions have focused largely on either historical or contemporary Native American art, but with very little mixing of the two.” Shapeshifting shatters the notion that all art created by Native Americans is either ethnographic or crafty in appearance.

Kent Monkman (born 1965), Cree; Théâtre de Cristal, 2007; Chandelier, plastic beads, acrylic string, cabouchons, simulated buffalo hide, and Super-8 film: Group of Seven Inches, 2005 (7:34 minutes), edition 1/3; 168 x 240 inches (diam. approx.) (426.7 x 609.6 cm); The Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada, purchased with funds from Historic Resource Fund, 2008, 2008.099.001; Courtesy Kent Monkman and Bruce Bailey Art Projects; © Kent Monkman, image courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery, photograph by Don Hall.

Kent Monkman (born 1965), Cree; Théâtre de Cristal, 2007; Chandelier, plastic beads, acrylic string, cabouchons, simulated buffalo hide, and Super-8 film: Group of Seven Inches, 2005 (7:34 minutes), edition 1/3; 168 x 240 inches (diam. approx.) (426.7 x 609.6 cm); The Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada, purchased with funds from Historic Resource Fund, 2008, 2008.099.001; Courtesy Kent Monkman and Bruce Bailey Art Projects; © Kent Monkman, image courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery, photograph by Don Hall.

Kent Monkman’s electrifying video installation Théâtre de Cristal opens the exhibition and sets the tone for the rest of the show. Referencing a tipi made of clear plastic beads lit by an elaborate chandelier, Monkman critiques and challenges “the dominant Euro-American ethnocentric construction of Native North America embedded in a global consciousness.[2]” Paul Chaat Smith, Curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian considers Théâtre de Cristal “a work from the future about people who aren’t supposed to have one.[3]The installation is brilliant and the accompanying text should not be missed (even if you are a White European male, and you’ll know what I mean by this if you see this exhibit).

Kent Monkman (born 1965), Cree; Théâtre de Cristal, 2007; Chandelier, plastic beads, acrylic string, cabouchons, simulated buffalo hide, and Super-8 film: Group of Seven Inches, 2005 (7:34 minutes), edition 1/3; 168 x 240 inches (diam. approx.) (426.7 x 609.6 cm); The Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada, purchased with funds from Historic Resource Fund, 2008, 2008.099.001; Courtesy Kent Monkman and Bruce Bailey Art Projects; © Kent Monkman, image courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery, photograph by Don Hall.

Organized thematically, many works in Shapeshifting rely on politics to convey a concept, while others explore identity, place, and cultural heritage.

Marie Watt’s Column Blanket Stories, evoke the blankets infested with smallpox and other diseases brought by Europeans and distributed to Natives across the Americas. Independent scholar Kara English notes that today, blankets are associated with beauty, honor and respect and that “these [blankets] prized items weave together an intergenerational continuum and are gifted at births, comings-of-age, graduations, marriages, naming and honoring.[4]

Marie Watt (born 1967), Seneca; Column (Blanket Stories), 2003; Wool blankets and cedar; 144 x 20 x 20 inches (365.8 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm); Collection of Deborah Green; © Marie Watt, image courtesy Marie Watt and PDX Contemporary Art.

Rebecca Belmore’s Fringe, a powerful and haunting photograph of a female figure references the abuse of Native women and of the land. Bob Haouzous’ Wheel of Fortune is a deliciously superb work featuring the face of Geronimo surrounded by descriptive words. This wonderful work is a call to Native people to stop hiding behind general stereotypes. And yes, the Wheel of Fortune spins just as it does in the television game.

Bob Haozous (born 1943), Chiricahua Apache; Wheel of Fortune, 2005; Steel and paint; 96 inches (diam.) (243.8 cm); Courtesy the artist; © Bob Haozous.

Shapeshifting is a provocative exhibition filled with complex ideas. It opened my eyes to a world of Native American art making not frequently discussed or exhibited outside non-Native art or anthropological museums. As far as the implications of an exhibition with many politically charged artworks, Karen Kramer Russell says “the intention is that people will have a broader and deeper understanding of Native art and culture.”

Shapeshifting captures the creative spirit and resilience of cultures that have long been repressed.  It’s a remarkable and fascinating exhibition that changed my perception of contemporary Native American art and its transformations through time. The works in this exhibition foster an enriching dialogue that should be nurtured and savored over multiple visits to the Peabody Essex Museum.

Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art is on view through April 29, 2012 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.


[1] Page 15, [2] Page 24, [3] Page 220, [4] Page 180