Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ancestors and Descendants at NOMA

This large exhibition of objects and photographs from Tulane University's George Pepper Native American Archive—available for public viewing for the first time since 1926—came about almost accidentally. Stored for decades in Tulane’s Dinwiddie Hall, it was available only to researchers, which is how Cristin Nunez, a graduate student at the time, came upon it while researching her thesis. Serendipitously, she was also interning with NOMA Curator Paul Tarver and, long story short, one thing led to another. While these 150 Pueblo and Navajo artifacts are mostly what one might expect in a Southwest Indian collection, they are enhanced by the effective use of 140 photographs, some taken by ethnologist George Pepper and his associates, depicting the natives of what was still a remote and exotic land when they were active there a century ago. When the camera was turned on them, it revealed motley characters not unlike Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, below. But the most dramatic are the hand-tinted magic lantern slides taken by the contemporaneous itinerant bicycle-riding photographer, Sumner Matteson. Rendered as large prints of ceremonies like the Hopi Rain Dance with live rattlesnakes, and portraits such as his HOPI MAIDEN, above, they really bring the show to life and underscore its otherworldly mystique.
     Pepper also produced tinted lantern slides, the 19th century’s version of digital images, but even his photo of a Hopi snake priest with his quarry provides a more detached, documentary perspective. The snake ceremony itself featured painted warriors with serpents and ritual devices as we see in Matteson’s SNAKE PRIESTS TWIRLING BULL ROARERS, above left, and it is his photographs that provide the more complete picture of Hopi and Pueblo Indian life, and their close relationship with the mesas where they built their settlements. Pepper did pioneering work among the Navajo, and his portraits of them offer much insight into what is really a very different culture, while providing counterpoint to the mysterious Hopi who, then as now, tended to steal the show.  ~Bookhardt
ANCESTORS AND DESCENDANTS: Ancient Southwestern America at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century 
Through Oct. 24
New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100; www.noma.org