Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art

On view January 14 through April 29, 2012

SALEM, MA -- This winter, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents, Shapeshifting, one of the largest Native American Art exhibitions to open in North America in more than 30 years. Nearly 80 works from public and private collections worldwide offer a far-reaching exploration of Native American art as a continuum, juxtaposing historic and contemporary artworks. Through constellations of objects created in a range of media - ­­­­sculpture, painting, ceramics, textiles, photography, drawing, film, video and monumental installation - visual and conceptual connections are drawn between generations of Native people, art traditions and cultures. The exhibition opens to the public on Saturday, January 14, 2012.

"Typically arranged chronologically, geographically, or by medium, exhibitions of Native Art have almost exclusively focused on either historical or contemporary works, with very little mixing of the two," says Karen Kramer Russell, exhibition curator and PEM's curator of Native American Art and Culture. "Shapeshifting will prompt visitors to see the links and continuities within the vast panorama of Native American art, and to consider it with fresh eyes. Our intention is to shift how Native Art is exhibited and discussed."  

Spanning vast cultural, historical, intellectual, and aesthetic terrain, Shapeshifting offers a new approach to Native American art by exploring the conceptual underpinnings and artistic intent of contemporary and historic artworks alike.

"We have been especially fortunate to have the wise counsel, creativity, and expertise of a stellar group of advisors, authors, and artists from a wide range of disciplines and experiences, including many from Native American and other cultures," said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, The James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Chief Curator at PEM.

Shapeshifting is organized into four thematic sections: Changing, Knowing, Locating, and Voicing. Two monumental contemporary installations that compellingly address familiar icons and materials-Kent Monkman's 2007 Théâtre de Cristal and Brian Jungen's 2002 Cetology-begin and end visitors' journey through the exhibition.

CHANGING | Expanding the imagination

GalaninNative artists have continuously embraced innovation, adapting new ideas and expanding their means of expression. Nicholas Galanin's 2006 video work, Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan (We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That Has Been Left in Our Care), powerfully conveys the artist's ability to overlay his experiences as a Native American in contemporary society with the cultural traditions of his Tlingit and Aleut ancestry. His two-part video begins with a non-Native break dancer in an empty industrial space performing modern dance moves to the chant and drum of a traditional Tlingit song. The second portion is a perfect inversion: a Tlingit dancer in full ceremonial garb performs a traditional dance to the beat of electro-bass techno against the backdrop of Tlingit carving motifs.

KNOWING | Expressing worldview

maskThe second gallery illustrates the strikingly different ways in which artists imagine, understand and express their experience in the world, especially as influenced by culture and unique personal vision. It is intended to counter the perception that Native people share a single monolithic worldview.The upper portion of a Yup'ik ceremonial mask from the early 1900s depicts walaunuk, the movement of bubbles rising to the surface of water. Among the Yup'ik of Alaska, bubbles are considered to be visible manifestations of breath and underwater life. A seal, for example, must willingly give up its life to a hunter and, when doing so, the animal's soul retreats to its bladder. In reciprocity for this sacrifice, Yup'ik men inflate seal bladders during a five-day winter festival. At the close of the festival, the seal bladders are deflated under the ice, returning the animal's spirit back to the water.

LOCATING | Exploring identity and place

Sitting BullAs in many cultures, the haunting question of 'where is home?' is undeniably formative. The third section of the exhibition considers the importance of family, community, land, and place in the cultivation of Native individual and tribal identity. Kevin Pourier's 2008 Sitting Bull Spoon revives the creative use of buffalo horn by 19th-century Lakota people. While wild buffalo populations have been largely decimated and few contemporary artists work in this medium, Pourier has taken the traditional practice of buffalo horn carving and has created something quite modern. An image of the legendary Hunkpapa Lakota leader, Sitting Bull, is painstaking rendered by incising, buffing, and inlaying minerals. Sitting Bull's signature monarch butterfly is shown fastened to his hat, while the motif flutters across the surface of the horn in bas-relief. For Lakota artist Pourier, the image of Sitting Bull represents Lakota strength and cultural endurance, while butterflies symbolize love and family.

VOICING | Engaging the individual

MonsterThe fourth thematic section of the exhibition focuses on the artist as an individual engaged in the process of self-expression while interacting with the rest of the world. Luiseño artist Fritz Scholder (1937-2005) has been called "the most influential, prolific, and controversial figures in the history of Native art."¹ Through his Super Indians series which he started in 1967, Scholder provided a dramatic counterpoint to the prevailing romantic depictions of Native life. Scholder depicts a Plains warrior wearing stereotypical Native American garb but renders the work in a Pop art color palate dominated by citrus and bubblegum tones in brushstrokes influenced by one of his teachers, painter, Wayne Thiebaud. Far from a placid sunset-infused portrait, this image is fueled by the political radicalism of the 1960s, brimming with energy and immediacy that can barely be contained by the picture frame.


Celebrate the opening of Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art with a day of performances, panel discussions, film, art activities, exhibition tours, and more. Details available at:


Explore PEM's newest exhibition with a weekend of interactive and engaging programming.  Song and dance, weaving demonstrations, artist lectures, art making and more.  Visit for details.



Breakfast and exhibition tour of the galleries with PEM Curator of Native American Art and Culture, Karen Kramer Russell. RSVP to Whitney Riepe by Tuesday, January 3, 2012 by emailing or calling 978-745-9500 x3228.


Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art, Yale University Press © 2012, Softcover ($39.95) and Hardcover ($65), 248 pages with featured essays by: Karen Kramer Russell, Bruce Bernstein, Joe D. Horse Capture, Jessica L. Horton, Janet Catherine Berlo, Paul Chaat Smith. Available at the PEM Shop, in person or online at:


Captioned, high-resolution exhibition photography is available for download from the following link: 


Exhibition supported in part by the Terra Foundation for American Art, Peck Stacpoole Foundation, the Bay and Paul Foundations, Ellen and Steve Hoffman, and the East India Marine Associates (EIMA) of the Peabody Essex Museum.


Media Partner: 

The Boston Globe


Brian Jungen (born 1970), Dunne-Za Nation; Cetology, 2002; Plastic chairs; 63 ? x 496 ¼ x 66 ? inches (161.5 x 1260.4 x 168.7 cm); Vancouver Art Gallery, British Columbia, Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Fund, purchased with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program, VAG2003.8a-z; © Brian Jungen, image courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery, and Brian Jungen and Catriona Jeffries Gallery, photograph by Tomas Svab, Vancouver Art Gallery.

Nicholas Galanin (born 1979), Tlingit/Aleut; Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan (We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That Has Been Left in Our Care), parts I and II, 2006; Digital video: 5 minute loop each, performances by David Elsewhere (part I) and Dan Littlefield (part II); Dimensions variable; Courtesy of the artist.

Yup'ik artist; Mask representing walaunuk, early 1900s; Wood, feathers, paint, and cordage; 34 x 21 ½ x 17 inches (86.4 x 54.6 x 43.2 cm); National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 9/3432; Photograph by Walter Larrimore/NMAI.

Kevin Pourier (born 1958), Lakota; Spoon, 2008; Buffalo horn and stones; 10 ½ x 3 ¼ x 3 ? inches (26.6 x 8.3 x 9.8 cm); Private collection; © Kevin Pourier, image © 2012 Peabody Essex Museum, photograph by Walter Silver.

Fritz Scholder (1937 - 2005), Luiseño; Monster Indian (from "Super Indians" series), 1968; Oil on canvas; 18 x 20 inches (45.7 x 50.8 cm); Collection of Anne and Loren Kieve; © Fritz Scholder Estate, image courtesy Anne and Loren Kieve, and National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.


  1. Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian,



The Peabody Essex Museum presents art and culture from New England and around the world. The museum's collections are among the finest of their kind, showcasing an unrivaled spectrum of American art and architecture (including four National Historic Landmark buildings) and outstanding Asian, Asian Export, Native American, African, Oceanic, Maritime and Photography collections. In addition to its vast collections, the museum offers a vibrant schedule of changing exhibitions and a hands?on education center. The museum campus features numerous parks, period gardens and 22 historic properties, including Yin Yu Tang, a 200?year?old house that is the only example of Chinese domestic architecture on display in the United States.

HOURS: Open Tuesday?Sunday and holiday Mondays, 10 am?5 pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

ADMISSION: Adults $15; seniors $13; students $11. Additional admission to Yin Yu Tang: $5. Members, youth 16 and under and residents of Salem enjoy free general admission and free admission to Yin Yu Tang.

INFO: Call 866?745?1876 or visit our Web site at  


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