Patricia Norby, the first Indigenous curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, talks about the representation of Indigenous art in institutional gallery spaces.
In an optimistic step towards truth-telling, healing, and reconciliation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in September 2020, appointed Dr. Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purépecha) as the associate curator of Native American Art, making her the first Indigenous curator and the first full-time curator of Native art in the museum’s 150-year history. This follows movements made two years prior when the Met opened Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, which was the first time Indigenous American art was exhibited in the American Wing. Though this exhibition faced some pushback, it marked an important moment for encyclopedic museums throughout the United States, and reflects larger conversations happening within museum scholarship in recent decades.
Earlier this year, the School for Advanced Research’s (SAR) Indian Arts Research Center hosted a series of discussions surrounding recent movements in museum anthropological praxis. Entitled Museums Pivot: Shifting Paradigms for Collaboration, the month-long series highlighted recent efforts to foster community collaboration in exhibitions, collections, and research. Further solidifying SAR as an intellectual hub for these conversations, Museums Pivot included discussions between a wide array of Indigenous artists, scholars, and curators.
After three thought-provoking and energizing discussions, Norby closed the series in a powerful keynote. An artist, scholar, administrator, and curator whose work is rooted in northern New Mexico, her presentation for Museums Pivot focused on Indigenous representation and the ways in which she is bringing community voices into one of the most deeply rooted colonial institutions in North America.
In the below conversation, Southwest Contemporary chats with her about her current book and exhibition projects, the ways in which her interdisciplinary training shapes her thinking, and her commitments to community multivocality, partnership, and collaboration. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Lillia McEnaney: You are the first Native curator and the first full-time curator of Native American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You are a trained fine artist, a scholar, and an administrator, and in your presentation with SAR, you noted that all of your work is rooted in activism. To frame our conversation, can you talk a little bit more about that? What fundamental principles shape your work?
Patricia Norby: Well, first and foremost, I see my role at the Met—and my role as an administrator, across a number of museums and institutions—as a facilitator and an advocate for Native American and Indigenous communities. A main priority is to work with and support Indigenous peoples, individual artists, and Native communities in the best way that I can, in the most respectful way that I can, with what tools, skills, or strengths that I have. I feel that very strongly, and I think that comes across in the work that I do.
My work is deeply grounded in activism, specifically in relation to my scholarship. I am always thinking about Native American and Indigenous art and worldviews in relationship to kinship ties to land, place, and landscape. In this approach, environmental issues play a big role in my writing and scholarship. They also play a strong role in my curatorial practice.
For example, in Art of Native America, I’ve worked to emphasize the environmental themes within the exhibition narrative. Indigenous people have very strong relationships to place, not only to land, but also to water and other natural resources. Anyone who works with Native art can see this very clearly—either in the materials or the content imagery—highlighting these ties to home is something I’m committed to. It is also something that feels very natural.
“I often ask the question: whose aesthetics are we talking about? It’s important to understand that Indigenous aesthetics are consistently rooted in sovereignty, kinship, community protocol, and ties to homelands and place. That’s very distinct from Western aesthetic models.””
I’ve never felt that there’s a big stretch between being an academic and working within museums. I think that they complement each other very well. My fine arts background also plays into my curatorial work specifically regarding my love and curiosity for how things are made, materials used, and artists’ thought processes. When it comes to aesthetics, I appreciate both Western approaches as well as other diverse ways of thinking about and appreciating aesthetics. For me, it’s interesting to consider how different perspectives can complement each other and perhaps work together. But one has to remain open—sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When talking about Native American and Indigenous art and aesthetic expressions with colleagues or students, I often ask the question: whose aesthetics are we talking about? It’s important to understand that Indigenous aesthetics are consistently rooted in sovereignty, kinship, community protocol, and ties to homelands and place. That’s very distinct from Western aesthetic models.
Your current book project is titled Water, Bones, and Bombs. Can you tell us about that?
Water, Bones, and Bombs focuses on 20th-century American Indian as well as American art and its ties to environmental conflicts here in northern New Mexico. I specifically focus on three women artists: Tonita Peña from Cochiti and San Ildefonso Pueblos, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Helen Hardin from Santa Clara Pueblo.
In my understandings and interpretations of their works, you can directly read expressions about environmental conflicts between Native people and non-Native communities during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. For instance, in the Tonita Peña chapter, I focus specifically on water and water politics, and also the contradiction of watercolor paintings, which are being created and sold using a precious natural resource that is both scarce and sacred. It is more of a material analysis of her paintings, but also a conversation about how watercolors have a very long history within the colonial project. Watercolors were often used for reconnaissance work by the military and by different “explorers” because they are lightweight, portable, and inexpensive. I also talk extensively about Tonita Peña’s professional experiences, and the challenges that she faced as an Indigenous woman who was working to support her family, but was also very grounded in her community.
The O’Keeffe chapter has more to do with the visual appropriation of sacred landscapes. In that chapter, I dive into perspectives of Abiquiú residents, people, and families who knew her, and the bumpy, awkward relationship that O’Keeffe initially had with the Abiqueño community, because she didn’t understand the cultural protocols.
There was one particularly beautiful story that was shared with me and I write about in the chapter. When O’Keeffe came in, she wanted to have indoor plumbing installed in her home, and was told that, well, if we’re going to bring plumbing to you, we might as well bring it to the whole community. So, she paid for indoor plumbing for the whole community, which from one perspective, seems very generous. But from another perspective, community members told me that they missed gathering their water from the local community well, which was a gathering place. Each day, the community would use that time and space to catch up with each other, tell jokes, laugh, even catch up on the latest news and gossip. It was a place of connection. [In our conversation], one elder shared that after the plumbing was installed, people became more isolated from one another. The well was eventually closed up. They lost that resource of connection. And so, you really begin to understand the different perspectives. An outsider might say, ‘Oh, isn’t it great that she brought all these modern conveniences to the community?’ But as one elder bluntly put it, ‘We liked our well.’ Those moments are very eye and heart opening.
The third chapter focuses on Helen Hardin from Santa Clara Pueblo, and her work with acrylic paints and printmaking. She was working with a very early, less refined form of acrylic paints, which had chemicals, heavy metals, and pigments. Today, acrylic paints are often labeled non-toxic, but that does not mean that they’re not toxic. Instead, what it means is that they have a slower toxicity growth rate. In her studio, she was exposing her body to a number of material toxins, in addition to working and living in a region of long-term exposure to environmental toxins. This is referred to as a type of “double cocktail,” an interactive mix of material toxins within the body which can compound physical reactions. I want to emphasize that the chapter is not intended to hold up Hardin as a poster child for the dangers of environmental or material toxins—it is instead intended to create an additional context of awareness about Indigenous health, and the ongoing effects of settler colonialism. We need to protect our health and our bodies.
Most practicing artists now understand that this is not a question of if an artist is exposed to toxins, it’s a question of how much and how often. If you are an artist, you are being exposed to materials and toxins. This is an issue that is legally regulated. It’s similar in the museum world, particularly when working with historical Indigenous collections, which were often exposed to insecticides. Safety is an issue that is always on our minds.
How interesting—these three stories of the colonial project in New Mexico are so intricately complex, but also incredibly cohesive.
Yes, there’s the water, the land, and then our physical connections to them.
You are also coming at this from an incredibly interdisciplinary perspective.
I am trained in American Studies, but I specialize in American Indian and Indigenous visual and material culture. In an American Studies program, you are thinking about things from a very interdisciplinary perspective, and you are weaving all these different strands together. I think that that’s why my work is grounded in aesthetic, environmental, activist approaches.
That is clearly integral to your everyday work at the Met. How does your academic training and research—which is so grounded here in northern New Mexico and on Tewa lands—inform your work in the museum?
We just finished our annual rotation of the Art of Native America exhibition in April. One of the first things I did with that installation was remove a map from the wall that delineated tribal territories according to non-Indigenous viewpoints. I was uncomfortable with the map—it didn’t reflect the rich intercultural exchange between Indigenous communities and their movement throughout North America. And so, rather than having that map there, I wanted to think about Indigenous “maps” or concepts of space which are historically integrated with local environments. These can range from a drawn image onto a surface, to a trail marker tree that’s bent in a particular way to signal the presence of fresh water, or stones arranged in a specific way. There are many different ways that Indigenous peoples have always been “mapping” in relation to land, water, the environment, and to other communities.
Yes, maps were—and continue to be—such important tools of the colonial project.
Absolutely. We also started conversations with members of different communities to write a land and water statement. Not only a land acknowledgment—which is also important and worthy—the in-gallery statement is more of a type of “manifesto” that clearly states how we will move forward with exhibiting Native American and Indigenous art. It is written from an Indigenous perspective to hold the museum accountable, both for reflecting on our own institutional legacy and recognizing our impact on the local environments and communities.
In your SAR presentation, you explained that museums are “undertaking a lot of soul-searching and introspection.” I think it’s so interesting to think of the museum having a soul. In that vein, what is your philosophy for the future of museum work?
For me, it’s all about collaboration—it’s all about working with the communities. Museums and other cultural institutions are made up of people and relationships. We are at a point where nobody wants to work in a way that is soulless—people want to be thoughtful, sensitive, and respectful to Native American Nations and Indigenous communities, and the materials, and items they are working with and care for. For a long time, museums were operating from one particular viewpoint, only one way of understanding collections. That’s no longer the situation and no longer acceptable. And I’m excited about this shift. I am honored to be an advocate and facilitator, and I also recognize my place as a guest. At this point, I am what I would describe as “realistically optimistic.” I am an Indigenous woman. I proceed with caution!
You mentioned the 2021 Art of Native America rotation. In your SAR presentation, you detailed some really fantastic pieces that are now on view. Can you tell us a bit more about those?
Approaching the gallery, you are welcomed at the entrance by a stunning, collaboratively made, fully beaded Northern Traditional dance outfit designed by Jodi Archambault (American, Hunkpapa Lakota/Teton Sioux). This outfit, which was created using traditional as well as innovative regalia-making techniques, is shown in dialogue with Marie Watt’s (Seneca Nation) Untitled (Dream Catcher), an oversized installation work that was also community-created. In Marie’s work, project participants stitched together different blankets that were owned by Native community members. They cut down the blankets and stitched together this beautiful quilt-like piece that references a giant dream catcher. Having those two works in conversation at the gallery entrance, the goal was to exhibit works that were collaboratively created by two very strong contemporary Native artists—both women. Establishing a sense of community is integral to and ongoing for the Art of Native America permanent installation. Also, placing on view a statement piece from a local Native artist from what we now call the New York region was another priority. Coming out of the pandemic, its isolation, and the recent violence and loss so many have experienced during this time, I wanted to create a warm, welcoming, and vibrant healing space—one that uplifted the spirits of visitors, and especially Native American and Indigenous people.
Entering the gallery, you immediately engage with this incredible Seminole shirt that was created by a Seminole woman artist. As part of my ongoing goal to include Indigenous voices, perspectives, and experiences in our collections, exhibitions, and programs, I recently shared a conversation with two Seminole community members who helped to write a label for this shirt. I was told that the shirt was likely an upcycled, or recycled, 19th-century man’s tunic that was redesigned and shortened to be a 20th-century style shirt. One of the Seminole community members shared that seeing this shirt on view, representing the Seminole community, was a powerful moment for them. It made me so happy to hear this because that is my goal—to welcome Indigenous people into these spaces and to show them that they are acknowledged, they are important, and that their voices and perspectives are valued and respected.
I am committed to doing everything in my capacity to make sure that the items are on view in a way that is respectful. This work takes time. It takes a lot of conversations. It also requires learning about each sovereign nation and community and approaching them according to their needs and protocols. In this way, you are always learning. It’s impossible for an individual curator to know everything, and there’s certainly no way that any curator of Native American and Indigenous art can know everything about every sovereign community. And I think that’s really key to being a curator—or even a museum administrator working with Indigenous communities—you have to be able to be open and honest about what you don’t know. It’s not about being the “rockstar curatorial expert,” which was the former curatorial model. You have to be able to take a step back and realize it’s not about you.
What you said earlier about the gallery space at the Met being a space for healing was so powerful—that is a completely new role for the Met to take on.
I think the gallery has to become a place of conversation and a space for healing. This is, of course, going to take time because we know that museums and institutions have complex histories, but that’s something that I’m steadily working toward.