Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Our flag horse mask on view at the Brooklyn Museum

By: Eva Fognell, Curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art

Fully Beaded Hose Mask, Teton Sioux, ca 1900 hide, glass beads. T70

Fenimore Art Museum’s beautiful fully-beaded horse mask is part of the new Brooklyn Museum exhibition Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains. The exhibition “focuses on the tipi as the center of Plains culture and social, religious, and creative traditions from the early nineteenth century to the present.” The show is opening at BM on February 18 and will be there until May 15. After its stint at the Brooklyn Museum the show will travel to the Autry National Center, in Los Angels and then to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. So even if you don’t live on the east coast you will have a chance to see the show. I am going down to the opening at the Brooklyn Museum later this month and will share with you a few images of the exhibition. In the meantime you can see when they installed the tipi and read about the show by following the link above. There is also a catalogue accompanying this exhibition, and our horse mask is featured in it.

To protect a horse’s vulnerable head Spanish caballeros sometimes made their horses wear a metal face guard called a chanfron. It would probably not have taken very long for resourceful Indian warriors to employ the same tactic to protect their horses both physically and spiritually. Here is an excerpt from the earliest written description of Indian use of horse masks. It was written by Alexander Henry, an agent for the Northwest Company, in July of 1806. “We did not advance far before we met a small party … on horse back…Their horses were most beautiful, spirited beasts; some were masked in a very singular manner, to imitate the head of buffalo, red deer, or cabbrie [pronghorn antelope] with horns, the mouth and nostrils – even the eyes – trimmed with red cloth. This ornamentation gave them a very fierce appearance(*) ” In our ledger drawing (below) you can see a horse wearing a mask. The drawing is titled The Thunder Deity with his Masked Horse. In this drawing the spiritual aspect of the hose and his mask is emphasized.

 Thunder Deity with his Masked Horse, Black Hawk Ledger Book, Black Hawk (1832? – 1890?) Sans Arc Lakota, ca. 1880-1881, paper, ink and pencil. T614

The mask that is traveling to Brooklyn was made after the wars on the Plains had ended so its use would not have been for war but as parade regalia. The beaded American flags that adorn the mask are an indication that it may have been used in 4th of July parades.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Brooklyn Museum has interpreted the mask. I’m sure it will be a stunning display.

(*) Cowdrey, Mike, Ned and Joni Martin. American Indian Horse Masks. Hawk Hill Press, 2006. pg 4.

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