“Plains Indians, Artists of the Earth and Sky”, and the Weekly Photo Challenge: Angular

It’s hard to miss the relationship of these triangular shapes: the tipi on the lawn and the huge Claes Oldenburg/Coojse Van Bruggen shuttlecock in the background at the Nelson Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City. Even the angle of the sidewalk wants to get in on the visual action.

TiPi and Shuttlecock triangles

TiPi, Shuttlecock, and Sidewalk Triangles

Angles are everywhere in “Plains Indians: Artist of the Earth and Sky” (in Kansas City until Jan 11 -2015).

I was struck by what appear to be red hand print shapes on these leggings. Hand prints, a potent symbol since the time of prehistoric cave paintings, weave their way into our consciousness across cultures, continents, and millennia.

Man's Leggings, Pawnee Artist, Nebraska, c 1865

Man’s Leggings, Pawnee Artist, Nebraska, c 1865

Red handprints: detail on Leggings

Red handprints: detail on Leggings

Tobacco Bag with porcupine quillwork, Great Lakes artist, probably Ojibwa

Tobacco Bag with porcupine quillwork, Great Lakes artist, probably Ojibwa. c 1700-1721

Bags like this inspired many made by Plains artists a century later.  According to the curator’s notes, “In 1721, French-Canadian officials labeled the bag an ‘artificial curiosity’ and sent it to France.” It’s on loan from the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, one of the organizers of this exhibition along with Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins and New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

Tobacco Bag with Thunderbird in Porcupine Quillwork - detail

Tobacco Bag with Thunderbird in Porcupine Quillwork – detail

Apologies for the light-reflections — I don’t use flash, but the glass case enclosure reflects the ceiling lights.

Here are a couple where I managed to avoid the lights:

Pipe Bowl and Stem, Osage Artist, Oklahoma, c. 1875

Pipe Bowl and Stem, Osage Artist, Oklahoma, c. 1875

Hand Drum, attributed to Sheo Sappa (Black Prairie Chicken), c 1880-1885

A Healer’s hand drum used for ceremonies, attributed to Sheo Sappa (Black Prairie Chicken), c 1880-1885

Of course I had to notice that hoarders wouldn’t get far on the Great Plains. For nomadic peoples like the Prairie tribes, there’s no possibility of collecting excess stuff. Every object has to have a purpose, to be both useful and beautiful. In this exhibition, many also have something else, something I can only call a “presence”. Like the red hand prints, it inspires a thrill of recognition. It speaks across cultures and calls to something deep inside us all.

Beaver Effigy, Omaha artist, c 1800

Beaver Effigy, Omaha artist, c 1800. When turned over, it’s a bowl.

Here in the US, Thanksgiving Day is almost here. Popular legend has it that the “first Thanksgiving” was a feast in which the pilgrims and the native peoples shared their harvest. We didn’t share much after that, and I can’t help but spend a lot of my time in exhibitions like this thinking about injustice. Still, it’s a gorgeous show. See it if you’re in Kansas City or a future venue.

One more look:

Shell Mask, Late Mississippian artist, 1500-1700

Shell Mask, Late Mississippian artist, 1500-1700. Photo courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

 

And don’t forget to be thankful… on Thanksgiving Day and every day.

For more on red hands  (think “what is the sound of red hands clapping?”) don’t miss the section titled Acoustical Engineering in this article.

For more on the Weekly Photo Challenge: Angular

 

 

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