Exhibition Spotlight: “Life, Death and Transformation” Native American Art at the Brooklyn Museum

Coclé artist. Plaque with Crocodile Deity, circa 700–900. Sitio Conte, Coclé Province, Panama. Nazmiyal.

Native American Art at the Brooklyn Museum

Native American Art — Native Americans have created and continue to create artwork for many reasons, taking many different forms. This is evident from the collection of paintings, carvings, masks, textiles, potteries and other works of art on display at the “Life, Death and Transformation” Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, which highlights pieces made by indigenous North and South American artists.

Heiltsuk artist. Ladle with Skull, 19th century. Wáglísla, British Columbia, Canada.  Nazmiyal Collection
Heiltsuk artist. Ladle with Skull, 19th century. Wáglísla, British Columbia, Canada.

With 102 artworks culled from the museum’s Arts of the Americas permanent collection, the exhibition explores the concept of transformation as part of the religious beliefs and social practices of the indigenous cultures it includes. The themes explored include life, death, fertility, regeneration and spiritual transformation. The exhibition is designed to illustrate the way in which the indigenous people of the Americas envision their relationship with nature and the supernatural realm.

The majority of the art works on display are from the pre-Columbian era when indigenous life and art were untouched by European colonialism. Compared to later arts, which are heavily influenced by Christian beliefs, these artifacts show the nature of indigenous life and art before it was influenced by western culture. This makes a visit to the exhibition like a time travelled back to the past. At the same time, it gives an insight into the culture and traditions of Native Americans that have survived to this day.

Coclé artist. Plaque with Crocodile Deity, circa 700–900. Sitio Conte, Coclé Province, Panama. Nazmiyal.
Coclé artist. Plaque with Crocodile Deity, circa 700–900. Sitio Conte, Coclé Province, Panama.

Among the masterpieces on display are twenty-one objects that have either not been displayed publicly for decades or are being displayed for the very first time. These include the following:

• A full-body bark-cloth mask made by the Pami’wa tribe of Colombia and Brazil,
• Two contemporary kachinas by the Hopi carver Henry Shelton,
• A Paracas painted textile mask that is believed to be a part of a mummy bundle,
• The 2000 year old Paracas textile fragments from South America, the most famous piece in the museum’s Andean collection,
• A Maya effigy vessel in the form of a hunchback wearing a jaguar skin,
• A large elaborately painted Paracas jar,
• Anasazi and Valdina clay figurine, the oldest types found in the Americas
• A Maya warrior figure with removable headdress,
• An aquamarine grasshopper pendant from Mexico,
• A large, woven Apache basket with spirit figures.

Other interesting objects on display at the exhibition include Aztec and Maya sculptures, masks from all over the Americas, pre-Columbian gold ornaments, and specimens from the museum’s extensive Hopi and Zuni kachina collection.

Below are three examples of textiles and rugs from Nazmiyal Collection that were woven by people belonging to indigenous North and South American Cultures:

Vintage Peruvian Textile 46456 Nazmiyal
Vintage Peruvian Textile 46456
Early 16th Century Peruvian Textile 46130 at Nazmiyal
Early 16th Century Peruvian Textile 46130
Vintage Navajo Kilim 48145 at Nazmiyal
Vintage Navajo Kilim 48145