The Peabody Essex Museum chose an appropriate weekend to open "Shapeshifting," its latest exhibit of Native American art that includes works from its own collection and other sources.
For on this weekend we celebrate the birthday of the great civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was instrumental in breaking the stereotypes that had for centuries divided white from black in America. In "Shapeshifting" one of the goals is to disabuse people of the notion that there is such a thing as "indian" art made by nameless people from indistinguishable tribes whose work was meant solely for utilitarian purposes.
"There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think," King declared. And this exhibit demands some hard thinking about our views of those who inhabited the continent for thousands of years before the first colonists landed at Jamestown and Plymouth.
The mistreatment of America's indigenous people is as shameful a part of our history as was the enslavement of millions brought here from Africa against their will. Sadly, the prejudice from which both groups have long suffered is with us still in some quarters.
"Shapeshifting," which is on view through April 29, seeks to offer a fresh perspective on the art produced by Native Americans from Alaska to Massachusetts. The works are identified not only by tribe but, whenever possible, the actual artist.
Ironically, one of the most eye-catching works in this exhibit is Bob Haozous' "Wheel of Fortune" with its image of Geronimo, described in the catalog as an effort to "unseat Native self-doubt and force the confrontation of real issues instead of hiding behind stereotypes," which they themselves have embraced.