Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection
Dallas Museum of Art
April 24 through September 4, 2011
It is a rare pleasure to see an exhibit through the eyes of its curator. I shared that pleasure recently with about 50 art enthusiasts as Curator of The Thaw Collection of American Indian Art at the Fenimore Art Museum spent an hour introducing us to the traveling installation she had just hung at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA).
The Thaw Collection is a world-class assembly of 850 works of art representing the achievements of North America’s first artists. It is astonishing to hear that the collection has been amassed just since 1988. Eva Fognell, the articulate and approachable curator of the Collection, has chosen 111 pieces to represent it in Dallas.
It becomes quickly apparent that these are not representative pieces of art, however. These are masterpieces – the best of the best from each area and time. Dallas will enjoy hosting these beautiful pieces and planning programming around them for the summer.
The exhibit is organized by culture area: the eastern woodlands, the Great Plains, the northwest coast, the arctic and sub-arctic. Even if you don’t notice the changing shapes and sizes of the rooms in the Museum’s Chilton Galleries, you will surely pick up on the wall color changes that complement the art: wheat yellow for the plains, muted turquoise and sand for the southwest, forest green for the northwest coast. It’s a subtle but effective way to complement viewing the art.
The Museum has created an audio tour for the show that can be listened to on your Internet-connected cell phone or you can borrow a device from the docent. Don’t miss the information written on each piece, though. Unlike many collections of American Indian art, the artist’s names (and in many cases the object’s provenance) are known in The Thaw Collection. In addition, a photograph of the artist or the use of a piece or the area it is from is often included on the stop information.
Quotes from American Indian artists can be read on the walls. One of my favorites reads,
“There are three things that maintain a culture – language, religion, and art. You lose those three and you lose a culture completely.”
Jackie Parsons, Blackfeet bead artist
And then there is the art. These are some of the most beautiful American Indian art objects you will ever see.
Notice the large war club with the self-portrait of the artist as you enter the exhibit. This piece is from the 17th century and the provenance is known. It is stunning. The art in the show dates from the past 400 years with many of the pieces dating from the 19th century.
In the Great Plains room, three glass-beaded pieces dominate the middle of the room on a circular dais. They are a dress saddle, a boy’s shirt and a little girl’s dress. The beads are a result of trade with Europeans, but the design beauty speaks solely to the motifs of the local culture. Just past these objects are two pieces of parade regalia – a gorgeous horse mask and the longest, fullest iconic feather headdress you have ever seen.
Move into the turquoise Southwest area to see both Pueblo Indian creations and Apache and Navajo art. The woven blankets of the Apache and Navajo are magnificent. Pueblo pottery looks as if it was just made although the newest piece is 85 years old. Silver and turquoise jewelry motifs that are still wearable today may be the most recognizable motifs in the show.
The next room is the Northwest Coast art. We learn that the art of this culture area is the strength of the collection. Here we see baskets made for trade – art baskets. The artists of these objects were women and the creation of art baskets helped to move them into a cash society. The time period of these baskets coincides with the arts and crafts movement in architecture and has a similar aesthetic and philosophy.
Spend some time in this section – it is rich in material and the art community recognizes this part of the collection with its highest stamp of approval. There is a coiled woven basket with a fern motif that is spectacular. Hanging on one wall is a large flat basket known as a gambling tray – these were used to play a dice game. To make her point about how rare and fine these objects are, Fognell tells us this gambling tray is one of only six in existence!
Then we see a row of powerful sculptural objects. Masks, a sculpture of a chief, a copper chest shield and a lovely blanket created by a husband and wife team using what’s called a split animal motif. The story here is that art is used in this culture to tell people how important you are – what your place in society is.
Two table objects – both decorative and utilitarian – complete this part of the exhibit. One is a bowl created from a mountain sheep horn that is split, steamed, and bent into a graceful and fanciful bird. The other, called a bent corner bowl because of the steamed and bent construction (which creates a bowl with just one seam) still oozes fish oil, what it was used to contain, after 100 years.
Finally, we are in the arctic and sub-arctic room for the last objects displayed. Here we see Fognell’s favorite piece in the collection – a tiny (“but powerful”) polar bear sculpture that is one and a half to two thousand years old. There are wonderful, fanciful masks with feathers and animal hair used in dances, finger masks, and rattles. A waterproof parka created from seal intestine stitched together that looks surprisingly contemporary and fashionable.
All too soon, you have finished viewing the exhibit. As you exit, there is an outpost of the DMA store selling objects, jewelry, and books that complement the exhibit. A gorgeous exhibition catalog is a must-have for your collection.
Carol Robbins is The Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Curator of the Arts of the Americas and the Pacific at the DMA, and curator of the Dallas presentation. This traveling exhibit has been seen in Cleveland and Minneapolis and will open in Indianapolis after the Dallas exhibition closes.
Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection is at the Dallas Museum of Art from April 24 through September 4, 2011.