Respecting Non-Western Sacred Objects: An A:shiwi Ahayu:da (Zuni war god), the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, and the Museum of Modern Art
By Cécile R. Ganteaume, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
For the last few weeks, American Indians, the international art world, U.S. State Department officials, indigenous rights activists, and intellectual and cultural property rights lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic have been discussing the proposed sale of Hopi Katsina “friends” (often mistakenly called masks) at a Paris auction house. The Hopi, who live in northern Arizona, and their supporters tried to delay, if not halt, the sale. Hopi Katsina friends are among the most sacred Hopi ritual objects. Katsinam (the plural of Katsina) are spiritual beings that live in the peaks of the San Francisco Mountains and bring blessings to the Hopi. When worn during Kastina ceremonies, the friend—the spirit of Katsina—is united with the spirit of man. On April 12, 2013, a French judge ruled that “the claim that Hopi cultural patrimony is exclusively their property has no legal basis according to French law” and that the auction house could proceed with the sale..
The Hopi effort is the latest prominently reported instance of an American Indian tribe trying to regain its sacred objects from the international art world and market. American Indians have been seeking the return of their sacred objects since well before the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), the federal law that helps enable the return to tribes of certain categories of objects including sacred objects, held by U.S. museums.
Almost thirty years ago, on September 27, 1984, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City opened a highly anticipated and soon to be celebrated exhibition. “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern was curated by William Rubin (1927–2006), then MoMA’s esteemed director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, in collaboration with Kirk Varnadoe (1946–2003), a professor within the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. On display in the exhibition was to be an A:shiwi (Zuni) Ahayu:da (war god) borrowed from the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin, (now the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin). The MoMA exhibition, and its multi-authored, two-volume catalogue, explored the influence of tribal art and culture in modern art’s development “from Gauguin at the turn of the century to the Abstract Expressionists around 1950.” When the exhibition opened, the New York Times heralded it as “an immensely important show.”
In one of their exhibition galleries, the curators planned to juxtapose the painted wood Ahayu:da “sculpture” with a Paul Klee oil painting, Mask of Fear (1932), to discuss what they found to be the striking affinity between the “primitive” and “modern” “works of art.” The Museum für Völkerkunde acquired the Ahayu:da in 1880, and Klee, the Swiss-born artist closely associated with the Bauhaus movement, was known to have visited the museum several times while the Ahayu:da was on display. Like many avant-garde artists of his time, Klee was keenly interested in the formal vocabulary of the visual arts of non-Western peoples; he wrote on the subject more than once. William Rubin was convinced that Klee was familiar with the Museum für Völkerkunde Ahayu:da and that it “consciously or unconsciously” influenced his Mask of Fear. In the catalogue essay, “Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction,” Rubin wrote of the works’ “striking similarities,” comparing the oval-shaped heads; the single arrow projecting from the top of each head; the long, narrow noses and absence of mouths; and the horizontal line crossing each forehead. He suggested that “the curious multiple legs” protruding from Klee’s head were a transformation of the feathers projecting from the Ahayu:da’s chin. Klee’s painting was “a modernist transformation,” Rubin wrote, of the A:shiwi Ahayu:da “sculpture.” And this was how the curators intended to display the A:shiwi Ahayu:da from the Museum für Völkerkunde in “Primitivism” in the 20th Century: as a “primitive sculpture” with “conceptual complexity and aesthetic subtlety” whose exhibition and publication in the West, along with the appearance of other “primitive” works of art, had a great impact on Modernist aesthetic sensibilities. (See William Rubin, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, vol. 1. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984, pages 29–32.)
But as it happened, by 1984 the A:shiwi were already actively pursuing the return of their Ahayu:da—all wrongfully removed from shrines on their reservation. Cared for by A:shiwi religious leaders, Ahayu:da are powerful guardian beings who protect the A:shiwi and their land from harm. Their acquisition by European and European–America individuals and institutions broke all A:shiwi religious and cultural protocols. Their dispersion was the result of large-scale historical events that brought non-Western peoples, ideas, and practices to the Americas and led, in a myriad of ways and places, to the wrongful alienation of Native peoples’ religious patrimony.
The A:shiwi began their efforts to recover their Ahayu:da in 1978, twelve years before Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to provide a process for museums and federal agencies to return to Native Americans and Native Hawaiian organizations certain cultural items—human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony. The A:shiwi were in the vanguard of Native peoples seeking the return of sacred objects from museums, galleries, auction houses, and private collections. Buttressed by the newly legislated American Indian Freedom of Religion Act (1978), intended to protect American Indian religious liberties that had long been infringed upon and even prohibited, the A:shiwi campaign helped make it possible for other tribes to recover their own sacred objects. As T. J. Ferguson, an anthropologist who aided the A:shiwi in their efforts, has written, A:shiwi religious leaders were not only resolute in their pursuit, but most importantly were “morally persuasive” in their conversations with museum curators, administrators, and others in the art world elucidating the importance of returning Ahayu:da to A:shiwi shrines. (See T. J. Ferguson, “Repatriation of Ahayu:da: 20 Years Later.” Museum Anthropology, vol. 33, 2012, pages 194–95.)
During the summer of 1984, I was a curatorial assistant at the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, the forerunner institution to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. As such, I was very much aware of the increasingly vocal opposition of Native peoples, including the A:shiwi, to having their sacred objects displayed as “art” in museum exhibitions—in fact, to having them housed in museum collections at all.
It is important to bear in mind that in Western art history, the term “sacred art” is used to refer to (what might be called in this specific context) ancillary objects used in religious ceremonies and buildings, such as Byzantine chalices and other Christian liturgical vessels; or medieval or renaissance paintings bearing religious iconography, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s extraordinary altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi; or, much more recently, certain abstract works with fields of luminous color, such as Henri Matisse’s stained glass windows in the Dominican Chapelle du Rosaire in France. In other words, in Western art history the term is used to refer to artistic creations depicting, expressing, or evoking religious subjects and a realm of reality beyond that ordinarily encountered in daily life. It is used to refer to artistic works intended to speak to the hearts, minds, and spirits of those contemplating the divine.
Importantly, it is not used to refer to, for example, a host consecrated by an ordained priest during the Eucharistic service of a Catholic Mass. A consecrated host has never been considered “art” by museums. Yet objects held by American Indians to be spiritually sentient were. And they were displayed in museums throughout the U.S. and Europe for reasons that had nothing to do with (read: without any understanding of) their deeply held spiritual reality, and without any awareness of, and consequently regard for, the religious practices and tenets of contemporary Native peoples.
I have never forgotten the pivotal role that the MAI–HF played in this incident, nor the experience of being a direct witness to a sea change in museum practice. MoMA’s decision represents one of the first times that an eminent institution at the center of one of the cultural capitals of the world removed a sacred American Indian object from display, let alone from such an important (and highly publicized) exhibition. It was, in fact, an historic act that helped focus worldwide attention on the inappropriate display of sacred American Indian objects and on the responsibility of museums to respect Native religious traditions.
Cécile R. Ganteaume is the curator most recently of Circle of Dance, an exhibition on view at NMAI–New York. She is also the curator of the exhibition An Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian also on view at NMAI–New York, and the editor of the accompanying book. She is a recipient of a 2011 Smithsonian Secretary’s Excellence in Research Award. She joined the staff of the museum when it was established as part of the Smithsonian. Photo by R.A.Whiteside, NMAI.