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A new NYC Met exhibit explores the complicated role water plays for indigenous groups


Over the past few decades, much of Indigenous activism has focused on water preservation. A new exhibit at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art examines the meaning of water for Native nations. Here’s NPR's Jennifer Vanasco.


PATRICIA MARROQUIN NORBY: First, I should say (non-English language spoken). I am Purepecha. I'm Purepecha descent.

JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: Patricia Marroquin Norby is Indigenous. Her family is from a pueblo in Mexico. And she's leading a small tour of the exhibit "Water Memories."

NORBY: As you go through the exhibition, you realize that what we are doing is creating a current - a stream of stories and memories.

VANASCO: Norby is the Met Museum's first-ever curator of Native American art, and the 40 pieces she's chosen for the show range from the historical to the contemporary. There's a 1989 painting here of a dark angel on the beach and toy canoes made for children to play with two centuries ago. The exhibit explores water's many uses - for fishing, for travel, for ritual, to soften the reeds that make lidded baskets, but also to flood Native land by building dams or to mark a country's boundaries, like the Rio Grande does between Texas and Mexico. This is a new kind of exhibit for the Met. Norby is encouraging us to think about the politics of water, not just admire beautiful objects. For example, she includes a video shot at the Standing Rock Reservation.



VANASCO: The video, from Cannupa Hanska Luger, is shot from above. And while this music plays, we can see a line of people holding mirrored water protector shields above their heads and gliding across the snow to create a spiral. It represents a giant water snake. The snake is captivating, but that's not really why the video is here. Sylvia Yount, the curator in charge of the Met's American wing, says this about Norby.

SYLVIA YOUNT: It's an exhibition that really reveals her environmental approach to Indigenous art.

VANASCO: Just a few years ago, Native American art at the Met had been lumped together with art from Africa, Southeast Asia, South America. But the museum received a substantial new gift in 2017 and moved its newly enhanced Native American collection where they say it really belongs - the American wing. Yount says bringing all these new objects into the museum raises questions.

YOUNT: What does it mean to bring an important collection of largely historical Native art into a largely Euro American collection? And what are the issues that are raised? What are the conversations we really need to address?

VANASCO: In other words, looking at objects like these in new ways can actually transform how art is seen in the rest of the museum. But also, some of the objects are just a joy to look at. There's a contemporary art piece, and it's a canoe frame filled with feathers and carefully crafted glass whale oil lamps from the 1800s. One of Norby's favorite works is what looks like a pile of shiny hollow whale teeth on a weathered dock.

NORBY: They glow. They're beautiful. They're pearlescent. You want to - almost want to reach out and touch them because of their smooth texture. But we highly recommend that people do not do that here at the museum.

VANASCO: But what she would like people to do is come away with an intimate connection to the significance of water.

Jennifer Vanasco, NPR News, New York.


Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.