Tanzina Vega: This year, the United States has witnessed an uprising for racial justice and people are demanding change in how we think and talk about this nation's history. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has made a notable hire in this time. Patricia Marroquin Norby has become the first full-time curator of Native American Art for the Met and she says her role means acknowledging the reality of how some of this art came to be in the hands of museum curators, to begin with.
Patricia: For some community members, looking at the work of their ancestors can be very comforting and soothing, but it can also be very emotional to see items that were taken from their communities or sold from their communities during a very difficult time.
Tanzina Vega: I spoke with Patricia Norby about the role of Native American art in understanding our country's history and its future. She told me that many museums are still learning how to engage with this art.
Patricia: I think it's taken a while for mainstream museums to fully grasp the understanding that we can't just present Native American and Indigenous art according, strictly to aesthetics. Right now, we're at a pivotal point within mainstream museums where we're beginning to present native and Indigenous art, according to native perspectives and also native histories, which are equally important to the art because the art itself connects Indigenous communities to their stories of origination, to their homelands and also to tribal sovereignty.
Museums are just now catching up to this idea that they have to take a more holistic approach. Tribal museums had already been practicing this for a very long time, presenting their art and culture, according to their own histories. Mainstream museums have been doing this differently, either heavily focusing on the aesthetics or aesthetics alone, or taking a more didactic approach, kind of an Indian's one-on-one type of exhibit. That's what you see, for instance, with the National Museum of the American Indian.
Tanzina Vega: Patricia, what type of native art do you think has been missing? You're answering that in some ways. I'm wondering how will that begin to show up in how you're going to be curating the collection at the Met.
Patricia: Part of the overall conversation between historical and contemporary Native American Indigenous art has been missing. We're not getting the full picture. There's this really wonderful conversation that happens when we exhibit historical and contemporary native art together, we get the fuller picture about a community's history or their worldviews, their ways of understanding the world. We understand that their cultural practices have never ended.
They've continued, maybe they've transformed or they've shifted and taken some turns or there's fresh ways of expressing the original stories of the community or the community's history but when we take the art out of context from the communal histories, then we really miss out in appreciating how rich and how diverse native art really is. When I work, I'm always thinking in relation to the communities of origin, what are their perspectives? What are their principles? What are their practices? That's always on my mind when I'm thinking about exhibits and collections.
Tanzina Vega: How should people begin to engage with Native American art if they haven't already, if they're not as familiar with it? This is a conversation that we're seeing happening across so many of the arts and the discipline of the arts. We recently had a conversation about classical music and how it was so white. Opening up the eyes of our listeners to new faces and new types of art is an important mission for us here. How do we begin to do that with Native American art?
Patricia: Museums are not the only way to engage with native art. For instance, I make it a practice to go to Native American and Indian art fairs to visit Indian communities, visit their local museums and cultural institutions. Right now what's interesting is that you can go online and see any number of native artists and curators or museum institutions, giving talks about American Indian Indigenous art. It's wonderful in that you can now have access to so many voices in the native art world through your phone or computer. This is something that's never happened before. Now I can attend a lecture given at a museum in Oklahoma and another one in California, places that I wouldn't always have access to because of where I am.
Tanzina Vega: Patricia, I'm wondering in terms of talking about more contemporary native art and artists, are there themes emerging in the art more broadly given the political moment that we're in right now that you're noticing? I'm thinking anything that you're seeing that artists in that community are really beginning to grapple with.
Patricia: I think that are now more open to connecting the work to tribal sovereignty and native sovereignty and also environmental issues. For instance, in my own work, when I see a pot or a painting, I not only think about the aesthetics, the cultural principles that are visually present in a work of art, I also think about how that work of art is tied to a local community, to their environmental issues. Just using a pot, for instance, from the Southwest, the clay, the slip, the imagery, for instance, all of those are connections to place.
All of those represent something significant to that community. If I'm looking at a Maria Martinez pot and there is an image of Avanyu, the water serpent, then I know that that's a reference to water, to the sacredness of water in the Southwest and also a reference to the pueblo's proximity to the Rio Grande River in Northern New Mexico. There's lots of ways to look at art and to understand what's important to each artist's community and to their worldview.
Tanzina Vega: Patricia Marroquin Norby is the first full-time curator for Native American art for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Patricia, thanks so much for being with me.
Patricia: Thank you.
Tanzina Vega: Patricia Marroquin Norby was part of First People's Week here at WNYC's The Greene Space last week and you can watch what she and others shared with virtual audiences by visiting firstpeoplesweek.org.
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