This large exhibition of objects and photographs from Tulane University's George Hubbard Pepper Native American Archive — available for public viewing for the first time since 1926 — came about almost by accident. Stored for decades in Tulane's Dinwiddie Hall, it was available only to researchers, which is how Cristin Nunez, a graduate student at the time, came upon it while researching her thesis. Serendipitously, she also was interning with New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) curator Paul Tarver and one thing led to another. While these 150 Navajo and Pueblo artifacts are mostly what one might expect in a Southwest Indian collection, they are enhanced by the effective use of 140 photographs, some taken by ethnologist George Pepper and his associates, depicting the natives of what was still a remote and exotic land a century ago. When the camera was turned on them, it revealed motley characters not unlike Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. But the most dramatic are the hand-tinted magic lantern slides taken by the itinerant bicycle-riding photographer, Sumner Matteson. Rendered as large prints of ceremonies like the Hopi snake ritual, including a rain dance with live rattlesnakes, they bring the show to life and underscore its otherworldly mystique.
Pepper also produced tinted lantern slides, the 19th century's version of digital images, and his Snake Priest (pictured) was described as "hurrying" because his "captive was restive." The snake ritual itself featured painted warriors clutching rattlesnakes in their teeth, as seen in Matteson's dramatic Hopi Maidens Blessing Dancers, Snake Dance Ceremony, and it is actually his photographs that provide the more complete picture of Hopi and other Pueblo Indian life and their close relationship with the mesas where they built their settlements. Pepper did pioneering work among the Navajo, and his portraits of them offer insight into a very different culture, while providing counterpoint to the mysterious Hopi who, then as now, tended to steal the show. — D. Eric Bookhardt
Ancestors and Descendants: Ancient Southwestern America at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century
Through Oct. 24
New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100; www.noma.org