“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” is in its final stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (through 10 May 2015). An amazing and profound exhibit of American Indian art, it deserves all the raves it gets. The reviewer for Indian Country Today called it “a rare and important showcasing of the art and creativity of some of the original inhabitants of Turtle Island.” The New York Times reviewer described it as “one of the most completely beautiful sights in New York right now.” A reviewer in the New Yorker magazine said the show is “the most comprehensive of its kind...exactingly selected and elegantly installed.”
I visited the exhibition in late March. My word for the experience: overwhelming. I was not alone. Hundreds of people, many visibly moved—some even shaken—by the power of the art and artifacts, made their way through the gallery. As I moved from one piece to another, thoughts and emotions swirled through me, pushing me to contemplate what this exhibit means.
The impact of the exhibition hits immediately. Two pipes displayed at the entrance bring home the significance of prayer and tobacco, reminding us that smoking encompasses a ceremony of breath. The sculptural forms of the pipes are mythic figures, intercessors and companions in making breath visible. Visible prayer. Far cry from today’s public health campaigns against tobacco adulterated with chemicals.
A Quapaw tanned leather robe is complexly painted to tell a battle story and show how the Quapaw cooperated with French traders. Its center holds images of celestial powers—sun and moon. The robe carries so much content so vividly portrayed that I could feel the lives of the villagers and warriors, the traders, the lands on which they lived. Even after three centuries (the curators date the robe c. 1740), the energies of cultures meeting, cooperating, conflicting are palpable. The robe, like the pipes, is alive.
Another robe, thought to be Illinois, depicts a mythic bird, with sharp geometric shapes and lines that seemed to me to foreshadow the rise of modern art. The museum catalog, which I bought as a record of the exhibit, confirmed this, stating that the robe displays “all the tenets of the finest geometric painting…: intricately balanced composition, precisely controlled and sharply delineated forms, elongated tapering lines, small unpainted elements, and shifting focal points and rhythmic movements.”
The displays of clothing—women’s dresses, men’s shirts—pushed me to an emotional edge. They are stunning works of art, but, more significantly, they carry intense energies of those who made and wore them. I felt their presence. If you think that’s strange, consider these remarks in a recent New Yorker magazine article by NYU Professor Jessamyn Hatcher, an expert in textile and fiber art: “Clothing is different from most other kinds of objects in museums. Garments never lose the imprint of the body that was once inside them; indeed, the chemical reactions between the materials of the garments and the wearer’s body are ongoing.”
In a move of great significance, the texts on the walls of the exhibit and in the catalog speak in the present tense, unlike so many discussions of Indians that deploy past tense verbs, as if Indians no longer exist. The exhibition, though it presents primarily old works, makes clear that Indians exist, here and now; that Indians have survived centuries of invasive colonialism and domination.
This point is emphasized by the inclusion of contemporary works by Native artists, which, in the words of Gaylord Torrence in the Introduction to the catalog, “reveal lasting forms along with evolving concepts.” The exhibit and catalog, he writes, “present a view of Plains Indian aesthetic traditions over the long history…and as they are being redefined today.”
There is a past tense to the exhibition, simply because the older objects represent an era that no longer exists: the era defined by horses and buffalo. But even this, as Colin Calloway explains in an opening essay in the catalog, “was a phase in a story of perpetual change.” Horses and buffalo still live, but they are not the defining elements of contemporary Plain cultures.
The catalog authors are forthright in naming the historical factors that disrupted Plains Indians and their art. Torrence: “Artistic expression from this period…reflects the efforts of missionaries, forced educational policies, effects of Wild West shows, and perceptions of popular American culture.” Calloway: “The United States demanded the destruction of their way of life as well as their military subjugation.”
Part way through the exhibit, I recalled the epithet about Indian trade beads—that Indians are so simple they valued “trinkets.” It dawned on me that the pervasive integration of trinkets—beads, buttons, small metal objects—with such native ornamentation as porcupine quills and feathers marks a sophisticated aesthetic consciousness of daily life. Indian art is integral to everyday objects, not a separate category of performance.
Arthur Amiotte (Oglala Lakota) addresses this in an opening essay in the catalog. He writes, “art is where the underpinnings of tribal thought and values are encrypted.” He adds, the adornment of clothing and other items to signify “successful encounter[s] with spiritual powers” and “success in the hunt or battle” amount to “message systems advocating collective tribal pride.”
Amiotte discusses how these practices and materials changed in response to U.S. government prohibition of Indian ceremonial and social occasions: “Some…pieces were exchanged for food and household necessities at the newly established trading posts.” Ornamented clothing also became “decorative outfits for show performers” in “Wild West tours.”
“Today,” Amiotte continues, tribal arts and ancient beliefs “are once again conjoined…imparting a clear message: ‘We have survived, we are here today, well-adorned, in joyous celebration of our heritage as Native Americans.'”
“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” opened in Paris, at the Musée du quai Branly, traveled to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and completes its journey at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It draws on the strengths of each of these institutions, in a collaborative effort to recognize and promote “masterpieces of non-Western art”; in this case, the “sophistication and power of Plains Indian art.”
The exhibition catalog is a work of art in itself, containing images and detailed descriptions of every item, together with a series of informative and scholarly introductions. The Met has placed digital images, videos, and an audio guide online, so those who cannot visit in person may yet experience the power and beauty of the work.