The Menil’s collection of art from the Americas consists of more than 300 objects from ancient civilizations of Central and South America and from native peoples of North America, particularly those in the Pacific Northwest region. The de Menils began acquiring New World art in the mid-1940s with the purchase of ceramic figures and vessels from western Mexico. Their holdings more than doubled between the 1960s and ’70s as a result of their art and education initiatives with the University of St. Thomas and Rice University.
As with other aspects of the museum’s collection, the de Menils’ relationships with Surrealist artists are readily apparent, as in the fact that Max Ernst owned an example analogous to the blue-and-yellow feathered mantle on display in the Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision installation. Made by a Middle Horizon culture (600–1000 CE) centered in the present-day town of Huari, Peru, the mantle is one of 96 examples that formed part of an impressive votive offering. There are also several examples of Mesoamerican ceramic vessels and figures, textiles, and architectural elements. Although this part of the collection is not regularly on view in the museum, a selection of Olmec and Mayan ceramic vessels is available online.
Artistry is omnipresent in the social and spiritual lives Pacific Northwest peoples. Architecture, clothing, transportation, and utilitarian objects incorporate complicated compositions of formal designs and zoomorphic imagery that relate the metaphysical world to the lived-in one. The Menil’s collection emphasizes the masks, headgear, textile garments and screens, and finely carved wooden chests and spoons of the peoples (or First Nations) of the different Pacific Northwest regions. Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter (1922–2011), art historian Bill Holm, and Haida artist Bill Reid (1920–1998) were instrumental to the development and interpretation of the collection in the 1970s. Several objects from the Pacific Northwest are on view in Witnesses, and a permanent installation is located in the corridor opposite the gallery for the arts of the Pacific Islands. Highlights of the Pacific Northwest art collection include a Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) mask and comb collected by Captain James Cook in 1778 during his exploration of British Columbia, and a 19th-century Tlingit shaman’s rattle in the form of an oystercatcher bird.