Art beat // Art of the first Americans

Art of the first Americans MIA hosts a dazzling exhibition of American Indian art

WHITTIER — Animated might be a good way to describe the Yup’ik shamans’ Nepcetat mask, grinning mischievously and half-feral, that greets visitors entering the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ new exhibition of American Indian art.

Numinous may be better, and entirely appropriate. Used in masked dances by the Yup’ik, an Alaskan indigenous people, honoring the animals their survival depended on, it was a link between the human and animal worlds, earth and a spiritual realm.

Carved about 150 years ago and recently restored with fresh feathers and fox teeth that stud the upturned mouth like vicious little commas, the mask practically crackles with life. It is just one of dozens of fascinating and fantastic objects in “Art of the Native Americans: The Thaw Collection,” a tantalizing survey of the continent’s indigenous art.

The Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art arrived from the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, with a generous sampling of its nearly 850 objects. More than 100 have come to Minneapolis, temporarily expanding and enriching the MIA’s own splendid collection of American Indian pieces on display in adjacent galleries.

The objects testify to the rich aesthetic traditions of native peoples, not to mention their ingenious and sophisticated use of natural materials gathered from their environments.

Before leaving the first exhibition gallery, featuring objects from the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, one can’t help but marvel at the Yup’ik ceremonial parka, a garment made from inflated seal intestine and stitched together with sinew, subtly decorated with tufts of dyed polar bear fur. The native peoples of that unforgiving land also hunted in slit-eyed goggles that prevented snow blindness and kayaked wearing  bentwood hats, reputed to repel waves and, in the way they curved around the head like a sleek bicycle helmet, enhance hearing across long distances and choppy waters.

Artworks are grouped by region, with the galleries progressing through the Northwest coastal area, California and regions inland, the Southwest stretching into Mexico, the vast Great Plains and ending, finally, with art by peoples of the Woodlands cultures. A few objects are millennia old, but much of the collection dates from the 1880s and later, described in the exhibition as “a period of tremendous change for Native American peoples.”

That is, of course, a tremendous understatement. Change began the instant Europeans set foot on the continent and unwittingly unleashed diseases never before encountered by the native population, diseases that ravaged many native groups long before they were contacted by European explorers.

Fast-forward through the long, sad, often violent history of the United State’s expansion westward, the hounding of American Indians onto reservations and their forced assimilation — at the cost of native languages and traditions — and you arrive in the late 19th Century, when many native cultures already were irrevocably changed.

It’s a history woven into a Diné, or Navajo, “eye dazzler” textile piece, which includes both red, yellow and green yarn — treated with synthetic dyes and received in trade — and yarn treated with a natural indigo pigment. The colors zig and zag in the Diné’s distinctive and dazzling geometric patterns.

Similarly, American Indians of the Great Plains and Woodlands regions incorporated trade cloth and glass beads into traditional garments. Examples in this exhibition include some dainty moccasins, decorated in an exuberant floral pattern by a member of the Wendat (Huron) nation, as well as snug-looking baby carrier covered all over in green, pink and blue beads from the Gaigwu (Kiowa).

And it would be a shame not to mention the exquisitely woven baskets of California’s native peoples and the distinctively patterned pottery of the Southwest. The exhibition includes very fine examples of both.

The Pueblo pottery of the Southwest is a native art tradition that did not fade after European contact or westward expansion, one that actually experienced a renewal around the turn of the last century. Like the videos scattered throughout the exhibit of contemporary native dancers and artists, like the MIA’s own holdings of contemporary art by American Indians, it is a reminder of a continued cultural and artistic contributions of the first Americans.

Go see it
“Art of the Native Americans: The Thaw Collection” runs through Jan. 9 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S. 888 MIA ARTS (642-2787).


Four-part harmony

Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program takes a notably populist turn in its latest show to open at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The four-artist bill includes some of the most recognizable young or youngish names from the local arts scene: Erika Olson Gross, Jennifer Davis, Terrence Payne and Joe Sinness.

Sinness, who draws colored-pencil still lifes of tchotchkes and flowers floating in white space, is paired with Olson Gross, who delicately charts a physical and emotional landscape in pencil and gouache. In the next room over, Davis explores her familiar fantasy world, filled with dewy animal faces and dendritic growths, while Payne captures the fleeting thoughts of young women treading uncertain social territories in oversized and stylized portraits.

Go see it
“Flourish” runs through Jan. 2 in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program Gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S. 888 MIA ARTS (642-2787).