VMFA has a collection of Native American art that features works from across time and place. The works showcased here represent diverse subject matter and media. Objects in the collection are presented together in Evans Court Gallery and in the American Art Galleries highlighting under-recognized narratives in American history.
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.
In this painting, self-taught artist Ethan Brown depicts Walter Bradby, chief of the Pamunkey in the late 1930s. Bradby stands before the Pamunkey River (just east of Richmond), a site of critical importance to the Pamunkey people. He looms large over the river, yet spans it flattened space, as if becoming one with it. Since 1677, the tribe has had an annual tradition of presenting the Governor a deer in place of taxes. The figure’s likeness here comes from his appearance in a photograph of one such trip to Richmond in the late 1920s.
Maria and Julian Martinez, Tewa Indians of San Ildefonso Pueblo, are among the most widely recognized 20th-century American potters. Inspired by archaeologists, Maria led a revival of prehistoric pottery styles among Pueblo artisans. After establishing a national reputation at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, she began collaborating with her husband, Julian. From 1919 to 1943, Maria shaped the pots and Julian painted the designs. They fired them using a specialized technique that produced a distinctive black finish, often part matte, part lustrous.
For this bold platter, Julian used one of their favorite motifs, a puname eagle-feather design adapted from the thousand-year-old Mimbres style pottery.
After Julian’s death in 1943, Maria made pottery with other family members, including daughter-in-law Santana Roybal Martinez; one of their elegant bowls, with a solid lustrous glaze, is also on view. Today, a new generation of the Martinez family continues the tradition of crafting the highly prize blackware.
As native peoples were increasingly confined to a system of reservations in the late 19th century, they found few opportunities to make a living. Many came to rely on the barter and sale of traditional crafts. Potters, weavers, leather makers, silversmiths, and basket weavers found varying degrees of success in the growing tourist market. European-American collectors, with increasing access to remote territories, began to differentiate the products and styles of particular cultures and artisans. Several eastern painters – including Robert Henri, Marsden Hartley, Max Weber, Milton Avery, and Georgia O’Keeffe – found inspiration in the indigenous artwork.
During this era, Native American artisans rarely signed their work; pottery Maria Martinez and members of her family are among the exceptions. The names of most others – like the Western Apache weaver of this handsome coiled basket – have been lost to obscurity.
Cochiti potters of the 19th century created large-scale, boldly graphic ceramic figures called monos as a form of social commentary. (The word monos is a colloquial blend of Spanish and Keres with inexact definitions that range from “mimic” to “monkey”.) Virgil Ortiz seeks to recapture the essence of these late-19th century works and demonstrate that these ceramic traditions are still alive today.
Steu and Cuda are from Ortiz’s series Pueblo Revolt 1680/2180, a collection of monos figures that engages young people in the factual history of the Pueblo Revolt through a science fiction, futuristic narrative. Androgynous twins Steu and Cuda are interstellar time travelers who visit the Pueblo of the ancient past, leaving the mesas as remnants of their presence. The pair are complementary opposites in their angular forms and designs. They are in keeping with Cochiti tradition of large-scale, boldly graphic, ceramic figures to make social commentary. Likewise, the discordant patterns and repeated geometrics are similar to earlier Pueblo ceramics, serving to both bind and separate the figures.
Materials and their manipulation are major components of Kay WalkingStick’s art. She works with saponifies wax mixed with acrylic paint, building layers of pigment on the canvas and then removing them in places to reveal what lies beneath. For WalkingStick, this method becomes a metaphor for memory, both collective and individual.
In Four Directions/Stillness, WalkingStick uses the diptych format to make clear distinctions between physical and spiritual forms of existence while also confirming their invariable connectedness. Her landscapes, as well as her abstractions, are a kind of memory documentation. The cross in the center of the abstract panel pays respect to a collective human memory, notably one of the most recognizable motifs in several Native American cultures, signifying the four cardinal directions. The landscape side represents a personal memory of Bandolier National Monument in New Mexico. It is typical of WalkingStick’s process, in which she creates numerous sketches of a place but ultimately produces an image based largely on her memories and associated emotions.
Susan A. Point is a descendant of the Musqueam/Coast Salish people, who are indigenous to the lower mainland of Vancouver and the southern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and northern Washington State. Coast Salish women had a distinctive weaving style. To spin wool, they used a large spindle shaft with an attached wooden whorl as wide as eight inches in diameter. Point initiated the contemporary use of the spindle whorl form, and her distinct carving style has stimulated a renewed energy and interest in Coast Salish art. She is one of the few women who work on such a large scale in a traditionally male art form. By drawing attention to the artistic contribution of women while working in a medium typically reserved for men, she has broken new ground for future female artists.
David Piqtoukun’s family was part of a mall group who hunted and fished for subsistence along the Arctic coastline. His early recollections of living in a nomadic and semi-primitive existence instilled a deep and lasting love for the raw and rugged beauty of land and nature. He later called upon these deep connections to help him survive the trauma of being forced to attend residential school away from his family. Inuit artists often invoke human characteristics in their animal subjects to both humanize them and illustrate the close connections that they feel with the animal world. This seal mother holds her baby in an intimate embrace just as a human mother would.
A strong Inuit graphic tradition has existed for many centuries, but printmaking on paper was only introduced in Cape Dorset in the late 1950s. Today, Cape Dorset art is widely regarded as the finest produced anywhere in the Arctic. Padloo Samayulie creates careful studies of the natural world with technical precision. The flattening of the visual space is in keeping with her design aesthetic, which is punctuated by her use of vibrant color.
While most images on paper, cloth, and hide tend to be narrative, those on drums are more heraldic in nature- a combination of talisman and artist’s signature. These depictions represent recollections of a vision or dream by the object’s owner, who has sole rights to the image.
This drum was created by Joseph No Two Horms, a prolific artist who worked in both two-and three-dimensional media, including carving, painting, and drawing.
Chilkat blankets are made from a combination of cedar bark, wool, and other textiles, and generally depict blue and black figures on a yellow and white background. They employ both basket twill and tapestry twining, attesting to the weaver’s expertise. Male artists create each blanket’s design, drawing it onto a special pattern board that represented just over half of the complete, symmetrical image. Women then use this board as a blueprint for weaving the finished product. Chilkat blanket designs are typically divided vertically into three zones, with the central design as the focal point when the blanket is worn over the shoulders. The flanking zones are decorated symmetrically with secondary motifs. The elaborate abstract patterns representing clan symbols and crest animals identify familial and tribal lineage. The blankets themselves serve as prestigious regalia, worn on special occasions and during ceremonial dances, where the long fringe and striking designs create a dramatic effect.
Both the design and materials of this jar by Camille Bernal pay homage to New Mexico, particularly the Taos Peublo area where the artist grew up. Twenty-four layers of white slip, polished to a matte finish, create a luminous surface on which to paint graceful abstract flowers. The delicate blossoms are a call for rain, so crucial to life in the arid region. The red micaceous paint on the inside and on some of the flowers is a remembrance of earlier Taos potters, who were known for their own micaceous pottery.
Unlike most Pueblo hide shirts, this unique example is painted with representational designs. Although the motifs are similar on both sides, the colors change, perhaps indicating a representation of duality (night and day, for example). Around the bottom hem are dark-colored triangular forms that may represent mountains.
The Meeting/The Connection depicts Sice’s telling of the story of Kolowisi, the horned or feathered serpent, guardian of the waters, meeting his beloved, a maiden who visits the spring-fed lake of his orgin. The archetypal imagery includes Corn Maidens and dragonflies springing from primordial waters, the sacred foundation of the Pueblo community. Combined, these symbols depict prayers for rain (new life), metamorphosis, plentiful harvest, and continuation of life.
Although most Ashiwi carvings are referred to as fetishes, only those that have been blessed by the Medicine Society are true fetishes. Sice refers to his own work as carvings or sculptures.
Many nations of the Eastern Woodlands made and wore feather cloaks, or mantles. These garments were worn in various ways: draping only one shoulder, covering the entire body, or extending from the shoulder to the ground. Colors and weaving techniques differed based on the feathers used and how they were attached to the backing. Archaeological records show that these mantles are a uniquely Eastern Woodlands art form, documented by early colonizers of North America. However their physical existence is scant, with only fragments surviving in burial sites.
Raven Custalow is a Mattaponi tribal citizen and CEO of Eastern Woodland Revitalization, whose mission is to revitalize cultural practices specific to Eastern Woodland Indigenous people. She is seeking to revitalize the art of feather weaving not only among Mattapoint people but also to other regions in Virginia.
Christine Custalow is descended from both Rappahannock and Mattaponi peoples. She learned pottery making from her mother and continues to create works with the same traditional methods. Her low-fire “baking” process results in rich, luminous surfaces with organic tonal variation. Custalow uses the pinch-pot building process for smaller vessels and the coil method for larger ones. Most of her pots are burnished to a high shine using a smooth rock or a small piece of deer antler as a polishing tool. Custalow also employs other methods of surface embellishment. This example uses decorative elements such as feathers and beads attached to the vessel after it has been fully fired.
In this installation of monumental works on paper, Athena LaTocha invites viewers to meditate on the landscape as a geographic space, a repository of history, and a personified living entity. Her works often incorporate materials and elements taken from sites referenced in their titles. These sites are layered with history that underpins their vibrant and visceral presence. In extracting materials from each site for use in the paintings, LaTocha draws attention to the physical and cultural scars that are incised into the earth through industry, habitation, and traumatic events that underscore the ongoing unrest within the social and political landscape.
Learn more on the exhibition page.
Discover the art of basket weaving with Jeremy Frey, who is known for his unique designs and his use of traditional and contemporary materials.
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.
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. Featured here is a discussion about the work and the artist’s practice with Dr. Johanna Minich.