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Native American Art

VMFA’s Native American art collection includes objects dating from prehistoric times to the present day. Geographic regions that are particularly well represented include the Arctic North, Northwest Coast, Plains, and Southwest. The collection encompasses a great variety of media, including textiles, ceramics, beadwork, sculpture, painting, and photography.

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For our elders and ancestors, whose voices were silenced but whose courage created us – Karenne Wood, Monacan Indian Nation

The Commonwealth of Virginia was one of the first points of contact between Indigenous peoples and European settlers. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts acknowledges the presence of the Powhatan Chiefdom and the Monacan Nation on the land on which the museum now stands and honors all the indigenous peoples of Virginia, past and present. Today, Virginia is home to seven federally recognized Tribes: Chickahominy Indian Tribe, Chickahominy Indian Tribe – Eastern Division, Monacan Indian Nation, Nansemond Indian Tribe, Pamunkey Indian Tribe, Rappahannock Tribe, and the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe. In addition to these federally recognized Tribes, the Commonwealth of Virginia also recognizes the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe, Mattaponi Indian Tribe, Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, and the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia. These 11 tribes represent three linguistic groups in Virginia: Algonquian, Siouan and Iroquoian.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts seeks to honor the history of this land and to maintain and nurture our relationships with these tribes. We are committed to building on these partnerships in our approach to collecting, programming, and providing visitor experiences. It is with humility that we look to our past, and with hope that we look to our future.

Highlights

VMFA’s Native American gallery includes many incredible and unique objects. A rare, quilled headdress from the Otoe people is one of only three known examples in museum collections worldwide. Mimbres ceramic vessels show the creativity and humor of artists in the ancient Southwest. A painted hide shirt from the Taos Pueblo draws inspiration from both Pueblo and Plains contemporaries. Meticulously beaded clothing attests to the care taken by Plains women to create objects of beauty for their families. This collection illustrates the long history and importance of artistic production among Native people.


Basketry

Many variations exist among the basketry of different groups or regions, including form, technique, materials, and decorative elements. A weaver selects materials based on a combination of tribal tradition and personal choice, but also considers the material’s color, texture and suitability for the basket’s intended use. Other art forms are based on the art of basket weaving; textiles use many of the same techniques and pottery mimics some of the same vessel shapes and exterior decoration.

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Quillwork & Beadwork

East Coast and Plains tribes traditionally used porcupine quills to decorate a wide variety of items ranging from clothing to basketry. This labor-intensive form of decoration flourished until the mid 19th century when glass beads became easily attainable through trade with Europeans. This new medium provided artists more flexibility, resulting in more intricate patterns and a wider range of colors. Regional preferences are also apparent in the selected colors and motifs.

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Ceramics

The Southwest boasts a three-thousand-year record of continuous cultural history in religion, architecture, and the arts. Descendents of the Ancient Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona include the Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma as well as the Rio Grande Pueblos, and some of these communities have been inhabited for over a millennium. Contemporary ceramics are products of a tradition more than a thousand years old.

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Sculpture

Indigenous sculptors work in a variety of medium, including stone, wood, and bone; the choice of material generally relates to availability. For subject matter, artists have often chosen to depict the things with which they are most familiar: local fauna, humans, and mythical beings. Sculpture has been created as long as humans have inhabited North America, and today’s contemporary sculptors have inherited both a love of material as well as a regional aesthetic from their ancestors.

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NATIVE AMERICAN ART EXHIBITIONS

Words Matter

Featuring 10 works by contemporary Native American artists, this exhibition underscores the richness and diversity of the contemporary Indigenous experience told through the medium of printmaking.

Accompanying the Words Matter print exhibition is a display of Indigenous comic book artists, writers, and illustrators titled Untold History. To learn more about both exhibitions please see the Words Matter & Untold History story.

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Artist Videos

Artist Profile: Jeremy Frey
3:59

Discover the art of basket weaving with Jeremy Frey, who is known for his unique designs and his use of traditional and contemporary materials.

Artist Interview and Performance: Raven Custalow
4:01

In 2020, Raven Custalow, Virginia Native artist of Mattaponi and Rappahannock ancestry and an enrolled member of the Mattaponi tribe, was commissioned by VMFA to create a feather-mantle titled Puttawus. This video shows the artist at work and performing while wearing the feather-mantle.

360 Views

Enjoy 360 views of Virgil Ortiz’s Steu and Cuda! These ceramic figures are from the series Pueblo Revolt 1680/2180, a collection that illustrates a storyline Ortiz created to tell the history of the Pueblo Revolt by connecting it to a sci-fi, futuristic narrative. 19th century Cochiti potters created ceramic figures for similar purposes of social commentary.