TOLEDO — Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection presents a conundrum of conscience. With the individual works in the collection, I can find no fault; the Dikers have a finely tuned sensibility, honed first while collecting modern art, particularly works of expressive abstraction. During a visit to Taos, New Mexico, 40 years ago, they were taken by a piece of American Indian basketwork, which blossomed into a longstanding love of the Southwest and a passion for collecting masterworks of Native art from throughout North America. The resulting assembly of objects is exquisite, presenting some truly fine examples of pottery and Katsina figurines from the Southwest, wooden masks and tusk carvings from the Western Arctic, basket making from the Great Basin and California area, and detailed clothing and domestic artifacts from the Plateau and Plains region. The high levels of skill, soul, discipline, mastery of materials, and generational knowledge at play in their making is unquestionable, and I cannot fault the Dikers for being sincerely drawn to collect and celebrate these items for their aesthetic qualities. So, too, the Toledo Art Museum — the fourth and final stop on the tour for Indigenous Beauty — and guest curator David Penney (associate director of museum scholarship at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, and one of the premier scholars in the field of American Indian art) have devoted a great deal of thought and care to the presentation of these works, to lovely effect.
Yet a contemporary awareness of the sources and histories of these art objects makes it impossible to view them without a great deal of cognitive dissonance. As is noted in the exhibition’s catalogue, the Native population of North America was estimated to be approximately 10 million in 1492, the year the continent was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus. That number was reduced to 250,000 by the end of the 19th century, as colonists swept across the land, spreading disease, claiming ancestral lands, forging and breaking treaties, and destroying the wildlife and environments that supported the existence of 550 sovereign Indigenous Nations. Though numbers have rebounded somewhat in the 20th century, with 2.9 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives counted on the 2010 census, plus another 2.3 million listing these in addition to other ethnicities, the damage wrought goes far beyond decimation. That the works on display demonstrate a profound depth of culture and artistic sensibility among these various tribes only underscores the magnitude of what we have lost.