How Europeans looked to Indians and vice versa (London/Exhibit)





... A wide variety of early modern European reportage survives about the indigenous peoples of the Americas. But how they viewed successive European invaders, with their sailing ships, goblets of red wine, metal coins and weaponry, and their worship of a wooden cross, is very hard and usually impossible to recover. Native Americans did not write in ink on paper. Nor did they possess secure means of preserving their own carved records and drawings. And, anyway, most of these people were wiped out.

Yet unless we remember that these encounters were not just two-sided, but many-sided - that different indigenous peoples, too, must have possessed widely varying views of what was happening - it becomes easy to succumb to a kind of Eurocentric narcissism. The Europeans' gaze, however much it may be criticised, becomes the only one to be investigated. This is one of the many challenges posed by two exhibitions in London, which together provide an extraordinary opportunity to view and think about remarkable images of Native Americans. A New World: England's First View of America at the British Museum displays the watercolours of John White, the first Englishman (perhaps) to portray some of the flora, fauna and indigenous people of North America; in the National Portrait Gallery's Between Worlds: Voyagers to Britain 1700-1850, the star exhibits are the Dutch artist John Verelst's four full-length portraits of "Indian Kings", on loan from Canada. These men were not in fact kings, but self-appointed envoys of the Iroquois confederacy of tribes from the borderlands between Canada and what is now upper New York state. They were painted in London in 1710 while on a visit designed to cement Iroquois military support for the British in their struggles with the French for imperial supremacy in North America.

All of these Native American images are products of imperial initiatives, albeit initiatives of a certain kind and phase....



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