Native American art is alive and beautiful


The Ferns, ca. 1904

Scees Bryant Possock (ca. 1858-1918) Wa she shu (Washoe)

Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor

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First, a confession: shows about Native American art don't really excite me.

That is, until now.

This morning I toured what is the most artistically exquisite and personally engaging exhibition of Native American art I have ever seen.

The more than 100 pieces are drawn from the Thaw Collection of North American Indian art, housed at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Eugene Thaw has distinguished himself as a collector in that he purchased items purely on their aesthetic merits, not for their cultural importance. As he put it in the exhibition catalog:

I want to stress that I look at Indian material culture as art. To me, it is co-equal to any of my own highest experiences in pursuing the arts of many nations, both as dealer and collector. It stands rightfully with ancient art, with masterpieces of Asia and Europe, as their equivalent, and I wish it would be looked at this way.


Polar Bear Figure, ca. A.D. 100-600

Ipuitak (Prehistoric Eskimo), made of ivory

Photograph by Richard Walker

Thaw's collection spans 1500 years of Native American history, and includes everything from carved ivory and wood to ceramics, weaving, beadwork, and metalwork. Each item stands on its own as an exceptionally beautiful piece of craftmanship.

Thaw collection curator Eva Fognell has presented the works according to their region of origin, which reveals startling diversity in both artistic themes as well as the raw materials used. The collection is on a national tour of major art museums, that includes not just the MIA but also institutions in Cleveland, Dallas and Indianapolis.

Here in Minneapolis you have a sophisticated audience and a large native community, but we didn't know where it would go when we put it together, so we tried to make it as accessible as possible, to show the very important regional differences in the art of Native American cultures.


Miniature Settee, ca. 1830, made from birch bark and embroidered moose hair

Wendat (Wyandot or Huron)

Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor

While the items in the collection are inherently beautiful, it is MIA curator Joe Horse-Capture's treatment that really brings the exhibition to life. Each room features a giant photograph depicting the landscape of the region. A wooden carving stands before the California redwoods in one room, while a piece of pottery reflects the colors of the Grand Canyon in the next.

I wanted our audience to get the sense of place. When we see objects from the Arctic region, we think in our mind that it must be cold there, but I think the very large blow-up photos really give the sense of where these great objects came from.

The exhibition also features several videos of interviews with young professional Native Americans in the Twin Cities.

I felt it was important to bring a local Native American voice (instead of my own) into the exhibition because I wanted our visitors to see that many of these traditions are very much alive. And what better way then having young, well-respected and professional Native Americans tell their stories? It illustrates that this knowledge has been passed down through the generations.

Interviewees include a choreographer, a lawyer who also does beadwork, and an urban developer who's revitalizing the Franklin Avenue neighborhood. Horse-Capture framed the videos so that they are almost life-size, and feel like they are in the room with you, not on a TV screen.

Horse-Capture says he's thrilled to have the Thaw Collection at the MIA, but it also raises the bar:

Each object is a jewel, and illustrates the strong artistic heritage of Native America. There aren't many collections that are consistently this high quality. Our #1 priority is to collect objects of beauty that, like the Thaw Collection, are the finest examples of Native American art. But when presenting this material it is difficult not to talk about the cultural aspects of the pieces since they embedded with cultural knowledge. Having the Thaw Collection here at the MIA, gives us a new standard to reach for as we continue to collect and present the finest works of Native American art.

Art of the Native Americans opens this weekend at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and runs through January 9, 2011.