A pair of exhibitions at the Princeton University Art Museum serves up a generous sampling of remarkable art by indigenous peoples. Unlike many similar exhibitions, however, this instructive array of rich and varied works is presented as the material expression of complex belief systems and cultural patterns that touch every aspect of life. In the process, these remarkably beautiful displays have been organized to raise important questions about the way we look at, and how we think about, objects we find in museums.

In “Life Objects: Rites of Passage in African Art,” we are introduced to a sumptuous array of hand-wrought objects in which function is as important as form. While the assembled sculpture, masks, textiles, and other works matter importantly as art, they were designed to be used in rituals that made powerful connections with key phases of the human life cycle, from birth to death.

In “Gifts from the Ancestors, Ancient Ivories of the Bering Strait,” a landmark collection of exquisitely ornamented useful objects, carved from walrus tusks a long time ago, the viewer is asked to think about this art within the context of questions about the ownership of cultural property, the diverse and possibly questionable paths these objects have taken en route to the museum, and how they are regarded by native peoples, as well as to consider the significance of the role played by the art market and the social and cultural responsibility of museums. In the process these exhibitions combine to function nicely as a vivid material discourse on the aesthetic potential of the useful object.

The assembled objects, however, are just the beginning, according to Bryan R. Just, curator and lecturer in the art of the ancient Americas and a co-curator of the exhibit. “From the start the idea of the exhibition was not only to examine the objects for what they say about ancient peoples and their culture, but also to examine related curatorial and social issues.”

Museum director James Steward says that the format of these exhibitions, in which art is presented in a larger context, is a harbinger of things to come, noting that “Gifts from the Ancestors” marks the “opening out of the museum’s concern with the art of the ancient Americas.” He describes the objects in the collection as “compelling works of art, and a visual tradition that deserves to be better known. Exhibitions such as these can foster a new set of discoveries for scholars and viewers alike.”

While the exhibits combine to provide an embarrassment of sumptuous artistic riches, “Gifts from the Ancestors,” on view through January 10, takes center stage. As the first exhibition in North America to explore this frigid part of the world as home to a tightly knit suite of ancient peoples, this remarkable collection breaks new ground with the inclusion of a generous sampling of rare works from recent Russian excavations, along with objects from private collections that are making their public debut. The Russian inclusions are a telling addition to the subject, according to Just. “Although the region is defined by continental boundaries, the nature of these objects reflects closer relationships between the various peoples,” he says, noting, “subtle differences in regional style that are also instructive.”

The fact that the Russian material was collected within a controlled archaeological context is also significant, according to Just. He says that the American objects were acquired under a variety of circumstances, including those in which the context was lost. “Sometimes we don’t know the real value of the American objects. Those from the Russian side provide a wealth of contextual information.” The variety of intricate engraved handwork that marks these everyday objects offers a telling glimpse into a little-known aspect of the art of the ancient Americas, and represents a groundbreaking partnership between the museum and the Native Alaskan community.

“Many of our objects come from an early dig at [a village called] Native Village of Point Hope. Before we could organize the exhibition, we needed the approval of the village council. There were also council members at the opening, native people participating in a series of panel talks, and contributing to the catalogue. This is a first for the museum.”

Life in the frigid zone is a relatively recent area of study. The discovery in the 1930s and ’40s of elaborately ornamented carvings of animals, mythical beasts, shape-shifting creatures, masks, and human figurines opened doors onto a world that was, until then, little known or understood. While the information about these people remains fragmentary, the assembled works have contributed, importantly, to the telling of their story.

According to Just, the entry gallery is designed with the viewer in mind. “We installed it in an informal way to whet the appetite of visitors,” he says. “We wanted to introduce the material, invite them to continue, learn what these objects are meant for, and how we know.”

The exhibition opens with a sampling of the earliest objects and some of the tools used in their manufacture. Combs, harpoon heads and weights, figural works and animal carvings are elaborately decorated with engraved imagery.

Even more remarkable is that the complex decorations on these workaday objects were rendered using the simplest of tools. The ornate incised, fluid lines that mark these objects were carved using handmade tools that include a bow drill with bits made from squirrel teeth and tiny pieces of iron. A sampling of these tools is included in the display. To help tell the story, the second gallery includes a case arranged in the manner of a burial, as discovered in a dig, with the outline of a skeleton and an array of objects presented as they were originally found. Just says that placement and the nature of some of these objects was instructive. “They allowed archaeologists to begin rethinking long established ideas.”

The inclusion of an early 20th century hand-carved kayak frame, lashed with sinew, from King Island, Alaska, also helps tell the story of this maritime society while lending scale to the myriad beautiful small objects display.

The exhibition closes with works by contemporary artists that speak of today but incorporate tradition. While there are clear references to ancient imagery, the sinuous abstracted forms of figural sculpture by Susie Silook, for example, would be at home in a modernist collection. A fully illustrated catalogue, which opens windows on life along the Bering Strait, accompanies the exhibition.

A broader sampling of the contemporary artistic voice of native Alaska can be seen through Saturday, November 21, at the Arts Council of Princeton. In “Dry Ice: Alaska: Native Artists and the Landscape” the work of the nine artists offers a diversity of subject and style. The collection ranges from contemporary and non-objective to objects that incorporate traditional narrative forms. The materials used are as diverse as the subject matter, with the inclusion of works made from animal hide; wood; traditional artist materials; video; and a lyrical, large-scale wall installation built from sewing thread, pins, and needles.

“Life Objects” functions as an instructive material lesson in the ways in which the interactions between humans, spirits, gods, and ancestors are expressed, using objects that easily qualify as art. The formal eloquence and the stunning range of style and media provides compelling witness to the diversity of artistic tradition and individual creativity incorporated in the ritual of traditional African societies.

The inclusion of vintage postcards produced by African and European photographers during the first decades of the 20th century help set the stage by showing objects similar to those on view in their original context. As such, these images go a long way in preserving the meaning of objects whose cultural context would otherwise be lost in their new lives as museum objects.

Looking at art becomes a layered experience in “Life Objects.” Every object has a story to tell. A vividly colored, early 20th century Initiation Wall Panel, the only sculpture of its kind outside European collections, takes on new weight when it is regarded as an important element in the rites of passage for the adolescent male as well as a graphically eloquent wall relief. An ornate Zulu wedding cape (izikoti), made from cloth, glass beads, and metal buttons in contrasting bold colors assumes important meaning with long white beaded tails that tell us that the bride had not borne a child before her marriage. And a hat made in Democratic Republic of the Congo of Pangolin skin, woven vegetable fiber, ivory, buttons, and mussel and cowrie shells was designed to mark the status of the male wearer.

The exhibition highlights the use of materials other than wood by African artists and the intrusion of other cultures. The Zulu wedding cape is decorated with imported European glass beads. A lavish array of Western-made buttons decorates the hat. And a Bembe reliquary figure, constructed from a cane armature, is covered with patterned European trade cloth. The exhibition continues through January 24, 2010.

Gallery Talk, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton campus. Friday, November 6, 12:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 8, 3 p.m. “African Rites of Passage in Art and Early Photography” presented by Holly W. Ross, guest curator of “Life Objects: Rites of Passage in African Art.” 609-258-3788 or http://artmuseum.princeton.edu.

Film Screening, McCormick 101, Princeton University. November 19, 7 and 10 p.m. “At the Time of Whaling On Spring Ice.” Reception at the museum, 9 to 10 p.m.

Gallery Talk, Princeton University Art Museum, Friday, November 20, 12:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 22, 3 p.m. “Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait” by Bryan Just, curator of art of the Ancient Americas.

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