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The Coe Collection of American Indian Art on view at Metropolitan Museum of Art
Leadership Shirt, ca. 1860-65. Arikara, North Dakota. Native-tanned skin, paint, porcupine quill, human hair, ermine, feathers, silk ribbon, H. 39 x W. 53 in. (99.1 x 134.6 cm). Ralph T. Coe Collection, Gift of the Ralph T. Coe Foundation for the Arts, 2011 (2011.154.11)

NEW YORK, N.Y.- Drawn from works given and bequeathed to The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Ralph T. Coe (1929 – 2010) from a collection that was a half century in the making, the exhibition of The Coe Collection of American Indian Art is comprised of some 40 objects that span a period from several millennia BCE to the year 2001 and are made in materials that vary widely, from stone to ceramic to animal hide. Ralph T. Coe, known as Ted, was both a collector and curator, and played a major role in increasing public recognition and appreciation of American Indian art during the 50 years over which his collection was formed.

The oldest pieces in the exhibition are the intimately scaled stone tools known as bannerstones and birdstones. Part of the paraphernalia used for hunting with spear-throwers, they are exceptionally well designed, aesthetically appealing, and attentively finished utilitarian objects. Ted Coe found these and other ancient North American objects compelling, and the archaeology of North America was a consistent interest of his, as were the works dated to those early times. Bannerstones, which come primarily from the upper Midwest, can date as early as the fourth millennium BCE, while birdstones, from much the same geographic area, are somewhat later in date, but serve nearly the same function. Other pre-contact works in the exhibition date from the Mississippian period of the 13th and 14th centuries. Named for the great river around which much of the Mississippian civilization flourished, they are ceramic, shell, and stone objects. A limestone tobacco pipe, in the form of a bound prisoner, speaks to the warrior aspects of the period.

The major part of the Coe Collection, however, dates from the late 18th and early 19th through the 20th century, a significant period for the collecting of American Indian objects. Major collections in North American and European museums had their beginnings at the time, and today it is the period most represented in American Indian collections of any sort. The first Native American area to experience a sustained European presence was the Atlantic Northeast. Attracted in the late 15th century by the rich fishing grounds of the northern Atlantic Ocean, fishermen were followed by traders, who were followed by colonists and settlers. Reflective of the environment that produced them, the Native American works of the period are often made of wood, even the fearsome war clubs, examples of which have been known since the 17th century and the initial days of European contact. Ball–headed clubs with a spike are the best known type of war club. The ball-headed club in the Coe Collection features an animal, perhaps an otter, holding the ball in its mouth. The balls of these clubs were made of tough parts of wood, such as knots, and by all reports were extremely well adapted to their purpose.

Birchbark model canoes are another type of object identified with the woodlands of the Northeast/Great Lakes, where full sized canoes of birchbark were in Native use. Model canoes have a long history—continuing to this day—as they have always been appealing to travelers of all sorts. Model canoes are identifiable for their ‘Indianness’ and fairly quickly became a staple in the tourist market, which developed rapidly in the region. Striking works of art in themselves, some canoe models come with minute versions of the equipment used with their full-sized counterparts. The example in the Coe Collection has paddles, banners, fish spears, a diminutive fish, and rolls of birchbark for repairs. Model canoes had a prominent place in what has come to be known as “Souvenir Art.” Souvenir Art, an interest of Ted Coe’s, has received significant scholarly attention in recent years. It is well represented in the current exhibition.

Souvenir objects are those made for sale to travelers and white settlers in which a basic mixture of American Indian and Euro-American features are present. Developing in the Northeast/Great Lakes woodlands region where the late 18th-century Catholic nuns of the Lorette region of Quebec began teaching the local Huron women to embroider and to use decorative floral imagery, the evidence of that new direction in a pair of American Indian moccasins of the period. The mocassins illustrate both the embroidery and the floral patterns worked on traditional Native moccasins of brown dyed deer skin. The floral patterns in moosehair embroidery are circumspect and carefully outlined, the dyed colors in a close range of pink-red hues. Floral patterns became ever more exuberant later in the century, as in the Huron/Iroquois pincushion of the mid- to late 19th century. The pincushion, an item of functional Euro-American use, has a foundation of red wood trade cloth embroidered elegantly with moose hair in an exuberant, naturalistically colored floral pattern. The central flower on a stalk is surrounded by raised rosettes of abundant white beads. While of unquestioned Native American manufacture, the pincushion is unquestionably Victorian in taste.

Further west, the culturally different peoples of the Great Plains had ways of life that were explicit in their art. An impressive hide shirt in the Coe Collection is one example. Hide shirts, which have been known as war shirts and were called by Ted Coe leadership shirts, are male garments of tanned animal skin personalized for the owner with the addition of quill or bead work panels, paint, ermine tail streamers, human hair, silk ribbon, and/or embroidery, all of which had specific meaning to the wearer. A depiction of such a fringed and decorated shirt being worn is seen on a figure in a drawing of about 1890. The scene, worked on a tipi model reminiscent of paintings on full size tipis, includes six confronting Indian warriors.

The Native populations of the Northwest Coast of North America—a long, narrow strip of land bordering the northern Pacific coast—met their first explorers in the 18th century. Traders in search of furs followed. During the subsequent half century or so, the income from the fur trade gave the peoples of the Northwest Coast time and the wherewithal to produce a body of forceful, elegantly carved, and imaginatively detailed wood sculpture. An important relief carved chest of Tlingit or Tsimshian origin features a menacing face on each side of the chest, suggesting that it was originally made for a powerful owner. The carving on the chest, which is generally worked in a traditional pattern, differs sufficiently from it to defy specific interpretation. Such chests were for the storage of goods of all kinds, even those of a spiritual nature. The chest, the sides of which had been opened out at an unknown earlier time, has recently been restored to its original box shape. Another traditional Northwest Coast work, a Tsimshian dance cape, is a type that has come to be called a button blanket. Ornamented with brilliantly reflective pearl buttons that outline a large appliquéd red image of a bear mother, the pattern on the cape covered the wearer when worn. The bear would appear and disappear as the wearer danced the cape in the light of the fire and buttons gleamed.

A slow-moving sea monster that had played part in the winter cycle of dances is seen in an imposing Yagim mask by the Northwest Coast Kwakwaka’wakw artist George Walkus. Yagim, whose face is surrounded by protruding barnacles, and with large, staring eyes, and a great fish on his head, becomes a menacing hunched figure that inspired awe in the viewers at the dance cycle. It is one of the objects in the Coe Collection that is the work of a known and respected artist. It was a very early Ted Coe purchase, and appeared in the Kansas City exhibition The Imagination of Primitive Man at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, organized by Ted Coe in 1962. The recording of names of American Indian artists in the late decades of the 20th century has begun to replace the anonymity the work of earlier artists. Ted Coe believed strongly in the need to record such information and, to the extent that it is possible, to add to that information.

Other works in the Coe Collection by established artists include a large mask by the well-known Haida sculptor, Robert Davidson (b. 1946). An imposing sculpture titled Noble Woman, it is a large female image of a traditional, mythic woman. Davidson, an artist who works in many media, from printmaking to sculpture, grew up in Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), and studied art in Vancouver. Within his own cultural heritage, the Haida theme of the Noble Woman arrested his attention as many Northwest Coast masks of the first half of the 19th century depict such a woman, identified by the large labret worn in her lower lip. Davidson’s Noble Woman is assertive in character, with traits drawn from universal theatrical masking traditions as well as his own personal aesthetic. It is the most recently made object in the Coe Collection of American Indian Art, dating to 2001.

Born in 1929, Ralph T. Coe was brought up in Cleveland, Ohio. He occupied an important position in the field of American Indian studies. During the half century or so that his collection was forming, he had a significant role in the growth of appreciation of American Indian art. The role began in 1955 when he was captivated by a Northwest Coast totem pole model he saw in a shop on New York's Third Avenue, and it would continue as a special voice for the championing of the aesthetic merits of American Indian art throughout his lifetime.

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