“Water Memories”: Water’s Place In Indigenous Life

“Water Memories”: Water’s Place In Indigenous Life

Image via The Met Museum

Water is a fundamental element for human life in its ability to both sustain and destroy life. The exhibition “Water Memories,” under the Metropolitan Museum of Art, highlights the significance of water in Indigenous peoples’ lives. Running from June 23 to April 2, 2022, the exhibition is constructed into four thematic sections. The MET’s conception of the four segments, “Ancestral Connections, Water and Sky, Forests and Streams, and Oceanic Imaginations,” places water both in time and space in America. 

Glass whale-oil lamps.
Oil lamps used for whale hunting in the 19th century. (Source: Anna-Marie Kellen)

For the history of native life in the Americas, in particular in North America, water has contributed to their collective story. The history of North America before, during, and after European colonization, and the continued existence of indigenous communities throughout the country, is based on this environmental condition. In the present, many reservations advocate for the protection of the resource in resistance to companies and the government. This is all framed under the continuing appreciation of water through indigenous traditions. 


A canoe model before 1845 suggests water as a medium for commercial and cultural networking.
19th Indigenous canoe used for fishing (Source: Anna-Marie Kellen)

The exhibition is spearheaded by curator ​​Patricia Norby Marroquin, the first curator specifically for Native American art in the MET’s history; “Water Memories” is the first exhibition presented by Marroquin in the museum. Before this shift, indigenous artwork was not included in the American wing of the museum, but was placed among other geographic regions. “Water Memories” will set a precedence for future exhibitions which include artwork depicting native culture, tradition, and life.

Arthur Dove, “Reaching Waves,” 1929, oil and aluminum paint on canvas.
Painting by artist Arthur Dove which depicts the waves of the Atlantic (Source: Anna-Marie Kellen)

Consisting of both objects from the permanent collection, with additions from both native and non-native artists, the exhibition is grounded in the idea of water. The artworks, which collectively make up the exhibition, though, are not all directly related to water. They all contain some connection to the source, whether in their construction or in their representation. On the whole, they touch upon topics related to economics, religion, sociology, activism, and tradition (among other themes). 

Similar to the water cycle, the resource is itself a memory, bridging the gap between the lives of indigenous generations. Similar to the movement of water, the exhibition travels through the history of native life in America. It is through such a lens that “Water Memories” connects past, present, and future.

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