COLUMN: All students should visit the Museum of Art
It only was recently that I was able to visit the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art for the first time. I not only was enchanted by the impressive collection of Native American art found in the Eugene B. Adkins collection housed there, but I also was disappointed to see the apparent lack of student attendance at the museum.
I was joined in the gallery by only two other couples in my time there. I was surprised by the low attendance, considering the resources the museum offers the campus, and the fact that it is free to students.
Heather Ahtone said the low attendance is a recent trend for the museum. Ahtone is the assistant curator for Native American and Non-Western Art at the museum. She said they attribute it to the fact that much of the museum was closed for renovation the past two years, and students are not yet used to it being available in its entirety.
I was impressed not only by the quantity of the Native American art pieces housed in the collection, but by the quality of the pieces. Most of the pieces were created by southwestern artists, with a few notable exceptions made in Oklahoma, Ahtone said. It was this collection coupled with her own ties to the Kiowa tribe that brought her to OU from the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., Ahtone said.
“I want people to understand what they are enjoying beyond the decorative surface,” Ahtone said. “Everything that we make has the potential to be beautiful in and of itself. Whether it was for use or for a ceremony, it wasn’t meant to stay on a shelf. It was an indigenous aesthetic to make things beautiful,” she said.
Many of the pieces are various pots. Pottery was a key part of many Native American lifestyles and the trade ran in the family, passed down from mothers to daughters, Ahtone said.
She explained that because most Native American communities consider the earth to be a female entity, women were the ones granted the privilege to collect clay from it.
The earthy aspect of ceramics is inherent in many pieces of ancient art, she said. The connection with the earth is especially noticeable in the San Ildefonso pots — some left unglazed, showing the original color of Rio Grande clay with slight variations depending on the spot where it was dug out.
Ahtone said, although a literal translation for our word “art” is not found in many Native American tribes, their pottery was an expression of their world and is a relevant insight into their culture for us today.
“We see the relationship between their life forces and our own,” she said. “Native Americans not only appreciate that they have a life, but they also appreciate the contribution that these animals make to their life through providing sustenance.”
Ahtone said one of the things she loves about the Native American art is the cultural influence behind each piece. The western idea that having an abundance of objects makes one rich is virtually unknown to Native American communities, she said. For them, reciprocity is core.
“Reciprocity means that you share what you have with others, and it is a mutual exchange. So, if you can make something beautiful it has a great value for both the maker and the recipient,” Ahtone said.
The idea that wealth is measured in the ability to give away is one of the many cultural values that makes the culture and its art so special, she said.
For students who have not yet experienced the Native American art at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, I encourage you to visit this incredible resource available to you, it is a wonderful example of a culture unlike our own.