Traditional Native American art encompasses a vast variety of traditions across materials as diverse as ceramics, textiles and carving from the Northeast’s Woodlands Indians to the Southwestern Hopi and Navajo cultures and the Pacific Northwest Tlingit and Coastal Salish. Enhancing the beauty of these various works is the rich history that each tradition extols. With techniques and materials exchanged over generations, traditional Native American art is as much a work of beauty as it is a piece of history.
In this article, we’ll expand beyond the realm of Native American jewelry to explore some of the most collectible forms of Native American art. We’ll situate each practice in its historical context while also highlighting brilliant examples on the market today.
Native American Pottery
One of the oldest artistic traditions of the Americas, Native American pottery can be traced back nearly 6,000 years. These earliest vessels served important functions in daily living – for instance, they typically stored water or grains – but as time progressed such ceramic wares became increasingly decorative, relaying motifs and characters important to each Native American culture. Pueblo Indian pottery, like that produced by the Hopi culture, is some of the most vibrant.
Native American Textiles and Hides: Blankets, Rugs, and Beadwork
From hide-hewn clothing embellished with beadwork to elaborated woven rugs and blankets, Native American textiles and hides often tell the history of the culture that produced them. Rising to incredible popularity in the nineteenth century in the Southwestern trade market, well-preserved textiles, specifically Navajo rugs and blankets, continue to be coveted by collectors and frequently inspire contemporary designers.
Native American Carved Masks and Figurines
Native American cultures also developed extensive carving traditions. For example, the male artisans of Pueblo cultures like the Hopi and Zuni developed a tradition of carving small katsina (sometimes also spelled “kachina”) figurines. These carvings were to embody the spirits of nature and the universe (known as katsinam). Meanwhile, cultures like the Coastal Salish and Tlingit in the Pacific Northwest created elaborate masks, some of which embodied similar spirits, to be worn by both dancers and shamans during ritual ceremonies.
Contemporary Native American Art
There is also a growing field of contemporary Native American wall art that bridges historic cultural themes with contemporary artistic dialogues. Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson, for instance, pairs traditional materials (like hides) and forms (like shields and fringed jackets) with the visual language of modernism and abstraction to speak to contemporary issues of Native American identity. The same occurs in the paintings of Cree artist Kent Monkman, who breaks stereotypes by reimagining past classics of the art historical canon through the lens of the Native American experience. These contemporary figures complement the long legacy of traditional Native American art while also charting a new course into the contemporary sphere.
Collecting Native American Art
As these few examples showcase, the field of Native American art is remarkably diverse and offers equally exceptional finds for those seeking the historic or the cutting edge. For those new to the market and exploring where their collection interests might lay, here are some quick tips to guide your auction beginnings:
Investigate Your Interests
Think about what field of Native American art most interests you and tailor your auction search around it. Given the idiosyncrasies of the art market, contemporary Native American wall art is often not sold in the same auctions – or even the same galleries – as antique or historic Native American art. Accordingly, those interested in a Jaune Quick-to-See Smith work will want to keep tabs on contemporary art auctions, while those seeking striking examples of katsina figurines will want to seek out auctions tailored more specifically to Native American artifacts.
Keep On Top Of Condition
Particularly for older Native American art, you must inspect each object carefully to ensure you’re aware of its condition. For ceramic pieces, keep a close eye for any chips, cracks, or signs of repair, as these might indicate damage. For textiles, look carefully for fading or insect damage that might indicate poor care or storage conditions in the past. Beadwork should also be assessed for any lost or snagged strands.
Home in on History
Honor the Native American artists whose work you collect by learning about the history and traditions of their respective cultures. Investing in this knowledge adds to the integrity of your collection as you learn about the symbols, techniques, and forms relevant to each tradition. At the same time, it can help you engage even more in the stories that your collection of Native American art can tell.
So, whether it’s a survey of Tlingit masks or a tapestry of Navajo textiles, Native American art is sure to provide a fascinating look into history along with a brilliant display for your collection.