Shapeshifting at PEM: Definitely Worth the Visit

Peabody Essex Museum will change your perception of Native Art in this exhibit!

I recently had the opportunity to tour PEM's newest exhibit Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art and left with a whole new perception of Native Americans as individual artists in their own right.  As a child and growing up I remember native art being presented more as 'craft' than art - possibly because it was not made as art, but as something to be used - a basket, a blanket, a beaded headdress, a tomahawk.  PEM has changed all that with this exhibit.

It starts with a visit to a room sized display, where the center of the room is filled with a teepee structure created with clear plastic beads strung on clear acrylic string surrounding a chandelier.  It looks like a giant spider dropped from the ceiling and  formed a teepee-shaped web that caught the morning dew. Vistors can enter the teepee where they can watch a video piece that is projected onto an animal skin on the floor. If one looks to the wall, they will see the narration of the video that is easily readable from ten feet away.  The subject of the piece is the anthropological study of 'tribes' with a twist.  The text is worth a read and had me chuckling as I realized the point the artist was trying to make.

By mixing old with new and putting them right next to each other in the same space, PEM ensures you'll experience first hand the continuation of the native artistic process that spans hundreds of generations. You'll see a modern wood carving expressing the magic of a coyote's ability to appear out of nothingness, next to a traditional skin shield with imagery of a bear claw that is meant to portray the protective nature of the bear to that tribe. 

You can usually tell the old from the new, but in some cases you will be pleasantly surprised to find that you are not looking at a modern interpretation of Native art, you are looking at a piece created by a native individual over 150 years ago.  That's the real impact of this exhibit - that native artists have been creating incredibly sophisticated pieces of functional art for millennium.  The art they create is not primitive, and goes beyond the thinking of Western culture. Their art is based in their own perceptions, visions and dreams. It is up to the viewer to create their own perception of the piece, and is not meant for literal interpretation. A blanket is a story, a club is a trophy, a mask is a dedication, a whale is a statement...

Some highlights of the exhibit include:

  • A new spin on the legend of Geronimo
  • A whale skeleton constructed of a surprising material
  • A traditional totem that was a symbol of great power and wealth
  • A war club inlaid with wampum
  • A Ceremonial Cape of incredible textile dexterity, created with unique materials provided by the artist's environment.
  • Ceramic clowns emerging from the ground

So gather the family and head to the Peabody Essex Museum for a wonderful experience that will transform your perception of Native Art and create an excellent foundation for your children to explore Native art as they grow.

While you're at the museum, take the time to explore all that it has to offer, and discover for yourself what a wonderful North Shore resource we have right in our back yard.  Their calendar of events is full of family oriented activities and events, so check that out before your visit to maximize your experience! 

For details on the exhibit, check out this link: Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art

Location: 
Glen Urquhart School Pre-K through 8th grade in Beverly MA

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