Indigenous America has long occupied a unique place in the imagination of non-Native artists. From the moment European explorers arrived in the so-called New World in the fifteenth century, (mis)representations of Native North Americans proliferated in the fine, decorative, and commercial arts. In order to personify peoples they knew little about, European artists invented a visual vocabulary to depict America, creating long-lasting stereotypes such as the "Indian princess" and the "noble savage." Artists working in the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries inherited these conventions and adapted them to create romanticized images of Native peoples existing apart from the modern world.
Facilitated by the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, Indigenous Americans were increasingly subjected to ethnographic documentation, as their destiny as a "doomed race" was widely accepted by Euro-Americans. Nostalgia for the "vanishing Indian" also motivated artists at the turn of the twentieth century to look to Native cultures, notably in the Southwest, for authentic American subject matter. Occurring amid colonization, genocide, dispossession, and cultural destruction, these artistic encounters with Indigenous America reveal little about the realities of Native life; instead, they reflect the attitudes and anxieties of the artists and societies that produced them.
Featuring more than forty works from The Met collection, this exhibition includes drawings, prints, watercolors, photographs, and popular ephemera from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. To add a broader perspective to this complex historical imagery, contemporary artist Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke/Crow) was invited to author interpretative labels for the works of her choosing, included on the exhibition object pages below. Red Star draws on her cultural heritage as well as archival research to create art in a variety of media that questions, often in humorous and provocative ways, stereotypes of Native Americans.