Whatever your view of Native American art, it's likely to undergo a profound transformation after you've strolled through Art of the Native Americans: The Thaw Collection . That's because rarely have so many extraordinary objects from so many regions of the Americas been collected in one place, or been presented in such a way that the differences and contrasts are so starkly apparent.
The Thaw Collection is also remarkable for the intriguing ways in which it connects the artwork to the region and landscape of the various Native artists, including contemporary native artists currently working in our own community. The exhibit features 110 objects chosen specifically for the exhibition by Eugene Thaw himself, who dedicated much of his life to the idea that Native American art is just as worthy—in terms of technique, execution, artistry, and cultural significance—as the art of other great civilizations. The exhibit itself offers plenty of evidence to support that notion, offering exquisitely crafted art that is significantly more sophisticated and varied than most people are likely to suspect. And the range of objects, from ancient ivory carvings thousands of years old to baskets woven in the late 20th century, offers some insight into how these artistic inclinations have evolved, particularly through encounters with Americans and Europeans.
The gallery is separated into six regions—Arctic and Sub-Arctic, Northwest Coast, California and Great Basin, Southwest, The Plains, and Woodlands—each of which has its own distinctive style of art. The first thing you'll notice is the craftsmanship. The wood-carving is meticulous and detailed; the basket-weaving impossibly tight and precise; the painting on gourds and animal skins intricate and colorful. Each room has its own masterpieces, from the oil-polished cedar bowls used by Northwest Indians to prepare salmon, to the whimsical beadwork of the Plains Indians, to the extraordinary articles of clothing fashioned from buffalo hide and rendered beautiful by people intimately connected to the symbols and stories of their individual cultures.
Each region is identified by a giant photo of the landscape of that particular area: ice floes for the arctic, a redwood forest for the Northwest Coast, the Grand Canyon for the Plains and Prairie, etc. What's striking in each case is how easy it is to see the connection between the territorial landscape and the nature and look of the art created there. In the Plains and Prairie room, for example, the color palette of the painted gourds and clothing seems to grow right out of the red and orange striations of the Grand Canyon.
Another clever way the curators have arranged things to connect viewers to the people and places on display is to put life-size video of local Native American artists from these regions talking about the art and its significance to them. For example, playwright/author Rhianna Yazzle, of Navajo descent, talks about watching the women on the reservation weaving rugs, and how they incorporated the events of their own lives into the designs—and how she does the same thing in her writing. Local choreographer/dancer Emily Johnson—whose lineage goes back to the Yup'ik tribes of Central Alaska—talks about how her heritage has influenced the way she looks at dance—specifically, how she sees dance as something that connects people to their past and how their soul finds expression and meaning through movement. If you take the time to watch them, the videos lend a vivid and extremely personal element to the exhibit—which, combined with the narratives in the artwork and the strong regional connections in each room, makes for a powerful triple-dose of import.
If your view of Native American life has been shaped largely by popular culture—in movies, TV shows, etc., or by selective teaching about Manifest Destiny in our public schools—it is humbling to see how evolved Native American civilization really was when the march of Anglo-Europeans began. Eugene and Clare Thaw have done a great service by preserving these works for others to see. Don't let their efforts go in vain; see the show and pay homage to what, for the most part, has been lost.
Art of the Native Americans: The Thaw Collection continues at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through Jan.9, 2011.
1) War Helmet, ca. 1780-1840 Tlingit, Northwest Coast Region Thaw Collection, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY Photo: John Bigelow Taylor
2) Nepcetat Mask, ca. 1840-1860 Central Yup’ik Artic Region Thaw Collection, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY Photo: John Bigelow Taylor
3) Woman’s Dress, ca. 1850, Nimi’ipuu (Nez Perce)Plateau region, Thaw Collection, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y. Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor