If the Museum of the American Indian isn’t on your radar screen, it should be. Located in the magnificent former US Customs House at Bowling Green, it is a treasure. The current exhibit, UNBOUND: Narrative Art of the Plains would be a good introduction. It explores the different media, images and symbols the Native peoples of the Plains have used to tell their stories since the late 1700’s. The curator, Emil Her Many Horses, has taken advantage of the large space to mount a comprehensive exhibit, which starts in the 18th century and continues through the present day, showing how artists recorded ceremonies, rituals, and significant events in their communities, and how they addressed cultural upheavals during the Reservation Era (1870-1920) and the American Indian Movement of the 1970’s. Some 50 new works by contemporary Native artists were commissioned for this exhibition.
In the first two large rooms, you’ll find works by modern day artists next to ones from the 18th and 19th centuries, linking and placing them in dialogue with each other. The side-by-side display of Winter Count calendars, tipi’s, shirts and robes allows you to see the changes in media, as artists moved from using animal hides to cloth and other materials. One of the highlights for me was Lauren Good Day Giago’s “A Warrior’s Story Honoring Grandpa Blue Bird.” It is paired with a muslin Lakota dress from the 1880‘s; decorated dresses of this kind could only be worn by women whose relatives had been killed in battle. On the bottom of Ms. Giaog’s dress (also muslin) she has painted images related to her grandfather’s service in Vietnam. One of the things that struck me in this exhibit was that a number of the artists or their family members served in Vietnam.
In the center of the room you’ll find an exhibit of art from Ft. Marion, in St. Augustine, Florida, where 72 Southern Plains warriors who fought in the Red River Wars were imprisoned from 1875-78. There’s a digitized version of two drawing books, which the prisoners used to document their experiences, especially that of being transported to Florida by means that were foreign to them: wagon train, ship, rail… and their regimented life at the Fort. The original books (given to General William T. Sherman) are displayed under glass, being too fragile to be handled, the digitized version lets you see them in their entirety, and also explains each of the drawings, which I found very helpful.
The heart of the exhibit are the ledger drawings, so, called because many Native artists recorded their experiences in surplus government accounting notebooks. FYI, there’s generally not a connection between the type of ledger paper and the subject depicted. Employing various media such colored pencils, crayons, markers, acrylics and ink, they are painted mostly on ledger paper, but also graph paper, fine art paper, and even deer skin. Some are highly stylized, others very realistic. Many are very detailed. Below are some of my picks.
Norman Frank Sheridan Sr, paints more traditional subjects, such as a victory dance, a war party, a courting scene. He uses a very bright, limited palette (3-4 colors each drawing) with a distinctive orange. I especially liked a lovely drawing of a little girl surrounded by dragonflies, which are a protective symbol.
Chris Pappan’s detailed graphite portraits often employ distortion: “I intentionally distort portraits because people have a distorted idea of Native people.” One of the more poignant works in the exhibit is his “Break From Tradition,” which portrays members of an Osage delegation that traveled to Washington DC, probably to press the government to uphold their land rights; if you look closely, you’ll see its on paper used to record a real estate transaction. Be sure to also look at his portrait of Chief Wahshunga, which is beautifully detailed.
Joel Pulliam employs a distinctive red color in his 2012 watercolor series of members of warrior societies and medicine societies (and one Lakota woman with a parasol); note how the subjects are all in profile. One of these works is at the beginning of this post.
There’s also a series focusing on events in women’s lives, where you’ll find the stylized, brightly colored works of Lauren Good Day Giago, such as “Making of Relatives” depicting her and her husband ceremonially adopting a relative’s daughter.
One of the more stunning pieces is a painting of a Kiowa Black Leggings Society Victory Dance by Sherman Chaddlesone. Painted on a fringed shawl, it depicts women dressed in red and black battle dresses, carrying their male relatives’ war trophies in a ceremony honoring the veterans.
In addition to the paintings, you’ll also find a magnificent straight up bonnet made of wool, ermine skin and eagle tail feathers, from 1890. The Blackfoot consider these bonnets to be sacred, and the right to wear one can only be conferred in a transfer ceremony. (Nearby is Terrance Guardapie’s drawing of a headdress transfer ceremony). This is why the wearing of these bonnets at games and fashion show has become controversial.
In an adjacent area is a Kiowa Battle Dress by Vanessa Jennings in red and dark blue wool, decorated with imitation elk teeth (bone), German silver conchos, military patches (Vietnam vet), as well as embroidered brass sequins, encircled by a silver belt.
This is a small selection of the many magnificent works you’ll see in this exhibit. Leave yourself time to go through and grasp the ways in which the history and culture of the Plains People have been expressed over the last few hundred years. Unbound is on view until December 4th; don’t wait that long to see it.
I will be posting more images to my Instagram account.