Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Opening Week for Art of the American Indians at the Dallas Museum of Art

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

I recently spent a great week at the Dallas Museum of Art doing what I love doing; talking and thinking about American Indian art.

I arrived in Dallas on Monday the 18th. Tuesday morning was off to the DMA for press tours at 10 am. It was an impressive event as their Board President introduced the exhibit and its sponsors. My guess is that about 35-40 people were there for the tour. Here are a few of the reviews that were published by various organizations in the following week: Dallas Art NewsD Magazine and Art & Seek. At the bottom of this blog is the review from the Dallas Morning News.

Wednesday was the big opening evening event for a select group of members and sponsors. Carol Robbins (the DMA curator of the show) and I took a group of people on a tour and after drinks and snacks and much talking about the exhibit we later went for a wonderful dinner at Stephen Pyles restaurant around the corner from the museum.

On both Thursday and Saturday I did a few more tours of the exhibit with members and other interested parties. On Thursday we were joined by Lou, (“doing a tour with a dog named Lou” is my new opening line to that famous song …) who was an adorable little Chivava service dog accompanying her owner:

Thursdays, the DMA is open late night and there was live music and lots going on in the museum. The glass flowers are by Dale Chihuly:

Monday was for training docents and a wonderful, interesting and thoughtful group they were! Maybe about 70-80 docents attended the talk and although I had a few hours to take them round the galleries there just is never enough time!)

Spiritual works: Thaw Collection brings American Indian creations imbued with a sense of the sacred to the DMA

To a Texan overdosed on Santa Fe blankets, kokopelli dolls and turquoise bracelets, a museum show of American Indian artifacts might not seem a prime draw.

But “Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection,” which opened Sunday at the Dallas Museum of Art, will open eyes to wonders far beyond clich├ęs of Southwestern tchotchkes.

Exploring widely varied indigenous cultures from the Northeast to the Great Plains to Alaska, stretching back a whole millennium, it’s a revelatory display of earthy vigor balanced by exquisite detail, visual fantasy by material practicality. From cultures that sensed supernatural forces in earth and sky, rain and wind, coyotes and snakes, items as different as capes, war clubs, masks and pottery exude totemic resonance.

Organized by regions, more than 100 items are on a national tour from the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. The show was assembled by Eva Fognell, curator of the Fenimore’s Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art.

Eugene Thaw had a distinguished career as a dealer and collector of European art. But on retiring to Santa Fe in 1987, he was captivated by the purely aesthetic qualities of American Indian artifacts. By 1995 he and his wife had amassed a substantial collection they offered to the Cooperstown museum, which built a new wing to house it.

There are some eye-poppers here: a circa-1850 Chilkat robe boldly patterned in cream, black and white; a 15{+t}{+h}-century clay jar with amazingly modern-looking geometric designs; a Navajo blanket brilliantly striped in red, white and black.

At the other end of the spectrum are finely woven baskets by early 20{+t}{+h}-century artists Scees Bryant Possock, Louise and Elizabeth Hickox. The 19{+t}{+h}-century introduction of tiny colored beads, bought in trade from the white men, inspired finely worked garments, bags, even saddles. French missionaries taught embroidery to the Hurons in Quebec, with results including a miniature settee with exquisite floral designs on birch bark.

The hybridization of aboriginal and invasive cultures is a recurrent counterpoint. A paint-decorated circa-1800 hunting coat is made of caribou skin, but in a contemporaneous European cut. Commercial cloth, silk ribbons, glass beads and ostrich feathers are incorporated in an exuberantly decorated hood presented around 1850 to Lord Elgin, the British governor-general to Canada.

“Eye-dazzler” serapes in the Southwest were made possible by commercial, synthetically dyed yarns. As the 19{+t}{+h} century progressed, the American flag began to appear as an emblem of power.

More striking, though, is imaginative use of indigenous materials, and not just animal skins and bird feathers. The Indians of the Pacific Northwest were particularly ingenious in steaming and re-forming wood and even animal horns into food containers and implements. Looking at a silky waterproof parka, decorated with zigzags of dyed walrus and polar bear fur, you wouldn’t guess it’s made of seal intestines dried, sliced into strips and stitched together.

Spirituality imbues much of what we admire. Prayers were offered as Indians scooped clay out of the earth to make pottery, and as weavers began to make baskets. Garments and masks had ritual uses; animal skins and hair incorporated animal forces into clothing. A Lakota lyric says, “Something sacred wears me.”

Add deep, nature-based spirituality to imaginative use of materials and real visual flair, and the DMA show is well worth a visit.

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