Focused exhibition at The Met explores significance of water to indigenous peoples and nations in the U.S.
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Focused exhibition at The Met explores significance of water to indigenous peoples and nations in the U.S.
Cara Romero (Southwest Chemehuevi, born 1977). Water Memory, 2015. Pigment print, 55 x 55 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, promised gift from a private collection. Courtesy of the artist © Cara Romero.

NEW YORK, NY.- On view in the American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on June 23, 2022, the exhibition Water Memories explores the significance of water to Indigenous peoples and Nations in the United States through 41 historical, modern, and contemporary artworks drawn from The Met collection, as well as promised gifts and loans. Organized in four thematic sections—Ancestral Connections, Water and Sky, Forests and Streams, and Oceanic Imaginations—these diverse aquatic expressions feature both representational and abstract approaches. Works by contemporary Native American artists Tom Jones, Courtney M. Leonard, Truman Lowe, Cannupa Hanska Luger, Cara Romero, and Fritz Scholder are placed in dialogue with historical works from The Met collection.

Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met, said "Water conservation is a timely and urgent subject for all the world. This exhibition considers the complex significance of water within Indigenous communities, and through a variety of works—illuminated by powerful writings of contemporary Indigenous voices—reveals how this essential element is critical not just for the survival of all peoples, but also for sustaining connections to living traditions and histories."

The variety of art on view in Water Memories—resistance clothing, hand-carved children's toys, whale oil lamps, paintings, photographs, and video—evokes a current of memories belonging to Native American and non-Native individuals. The exhibition also foregrounds Indigenous voices. Contemporary Native American community members contributed to the object labels, writing in response to the art, providing individual interpretations and their personal associations with water. The works collectively reveal how—across time and place—water provides nourishment, sanctuary, and healing while also activating protest, conflict, and complex dialogue.

As part of the exhibition, the Museum invited local Native American and Indigenous community members to a workshop led by Cannupa Hanska Luger in which the group collaboratively created Water Protector Mirror Shields. Inspired by images of Ukrainian women activists holding up glass mirrors to riot police, Luger initiated The Mirror Shield Project in 2016 in response to threats against fresh water sources at Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation. The artist also created a tutorial video inviting people from around the world to create mirror shields for use in frontline actions. The 24 mirror shields created by local community members, some on view in the exhibition, will be sent to Water Protectors at the close of Water Memories.

Water Memories is the third exhibition in the American Wing's Erving and Joyce Wolf Gallery North that responds to the permanent installation Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection. Debuting in 2018, Art of Native America now features ongoing rotations of Indigenous artworks—historical, modern, and contemporary. Among the highlights of the current installation is a contemporary jingle dress created by Shannon Gustafson (Ojibwe) from Whitesand First Nation, Ontario, Canada (born 1977). For over a century, women’s Jingle Dance dresses have been honored for their healing properties by Anishinaabe communities in the United States and Canada. During the Jingle Dance, dancers move together, the metal cones of the dresses creating a soothing, rhythmic sound.

Water Memories is curated by Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purépecha), Associate Curator of Native American Art in The Met’s American Wing.

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