[Powerful Images: Portrayals of Native America]

By Conaty, Gerald T.; Leslie, Mike et al. | Anthropologica, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

[Powerful Images: Portrayals of Native America]


Conaty, Gerald T., Leslie, Mike, Boehme, Sarah E., Crane Bear, Clifford, Hansen, Emma I., Nottage, James H., Harrison, Julia D., Anthropologica


In the tradition of art gallery catalogues, Powerful Images is impressive. It is an oversize volume, printed on fine paper to maximize the quality of the many colour illustrations and includes six essays by museum specialists. The exhibition was a project of Museums West, a consortium of 10 museums, all with large Western art and "Indian" collections scattered from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Los Angeles, California, to Calgary, Alberta.(f.1) The Glenbow Museum is the only Canadian member. This group defined themselves as "an international group of collegial institutions organized for the purpose of developing and expanding an awareness and an appreciation of the North American West" (p. x). The exhibition Powerful Images was the group's first project. It was intended to "contribute to public understanding about some broad segment of their collective holdings" (ibid.). The book and the exhibition were intended to analyze perceptions about Native Americans, to prompt the viewing and reading public to understand the false homogenity of images of "Indians," to come to know the historical positionality of these images and to suggest the complexity of the "Indian voice and perspective" (ibid.).

There are clearly two texts in the publication: the images of objects, that one assumes were the materials in the exhibition; and the essays, written largely by non-Natives. (As best as I could idenitfy, there are two contributions authored at least in part by Native peoples.) The topics of the five essays range from the art of the Plains and Southwest, Euro-American portrayals of Indians, ideas of history and cultural renewal, "Indians" in popular culture and contemporary expressions of identity by Native American artists. Unfortunately, all of the essays suffer from one major failing: they are too brief. Clearly a strict word limit was placed on the authors. As a result, some of the essays read like generic introductory surveys. Another restriction on the content of the essays would appear to be the desire to highlight the collections of the museums in the consortium. This emphasis reveals how some museums have still not taken a frank, self-reflective look at what their collections really are: very random, if not chaotic, selections of materials. Few collections hold materials on broad themes that could be said to be "comprehensive." Tying one's commentary to the collections of a predetermined selection of museum collections sets arbitrary and stultifying limits on the analysis that could be offered. Frustration builds as questions about the problematics of classification in museum/gallery collections concerning "Indian art" and other cultural materials, gender and class issues in the representation of First Nations in popular culture and the implicit linkage of ideas of Native Americans to ideas of the North American West are never asked. …

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