Sunday, April 24, 2016

Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York at Bowling Green is such a perfect museum setting.  It is in the old customs house whose rotunda has murals around the ceiling by Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), known for his images of New York City.  The rotunda no longer has customs officials but the day I was there was used to entertain and teach little tots!

Around the circumference of the building are the galleries making it quite easy to follow from one gallery to the next.  The exhibition I went to see with a high school friend, David Phillips, tells Native American stories, which were narrated through images created on the materials at hand.  Originally, in the southwest the Indians told their stories as rock art, i.e. petroglyphs, then in the 18th century where this exhibition begins the Plains Indians used deer hide, buffalo robes and muslin on which to record their tales.  Still later their was ledger painting with pictures drawn on the pages of ledgers, account books of traders and government  agents.  Around the turn of the last century these were plentiful but today artists sometimes struggle to find individual pages from old ledgers.

I love the hide paintings and it does not take long until you begin to pick out the concept of the stories if not the actual event.  I was told by a Kiowa woman that the hides showing battles were usually painted by the men and the ones with more decorative images by the women, which is rather logical if you think about who was doing the fighting!   I would guess that the fans of each kind of decoration could be divided by the same sensibilities.  Of course, today, one finds these rules not always adhered to. 

One of the scenes on elk hide in the exhibition dates from around 1880.  It is by Spotted Tail, a Crow Indian, and illustrates the accomplishments in war of a fellow Crow, White Swan, who was a scout for the infamous, then Lieutenant Colonel, George Armstrong Custer.

Two interesting women’s dresses had battle scenes on them.  One dates from the early 1900’s and is attributed to Running Antelope.  It represents battles of the Lakota Indians.  These  are “Honor dresses” made following in the tradition that only women who had relatives killed in battle could wear them.  Lauren Good Day Giago followed a more recent tradition honoring the achievements of her grandfather in the Vietnam war.

The second part of this exhibition is devoted to the artists of today who are carrying on the tradition of hide and ledger painting.  It being easier to get one’s hands on sheets of ledger paper than hides, much less painting on them, more artists have followed this tradition.  The first or last, depending where you entered the exhibition is a hide, however.  It is by Dallin Maybee, Northern Arapaho/Seneca, who is a lawyer by profession, but is also an artist and is currently running Santa Fe’s famous Indian Market.  This work was created in 2013 on a commercially tanned hide with several different kinds of beads including steel, copper and gold accentuating the painted imagery.  Dallin says this is his interpretation of the evolution of Native traditional and contemporary art forms.  It reminded me of a model Tippi that I saw a few days later given from the Ralph T. Coe collection to the Metropolitan Museum.  It is from the 3rd quarter of the 18th century and painted by a Blackfoot, Alberta/Montana.   It is also uses beads and other materials enhancing the painted imagery.

I have written often of the Ralph T. Coe Foundation and Ted Coe.  He was very close to the bead worker Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty and bought objects by her and many members of her family.  Darryl Growing Thunder, Assiniboine/Sioux, Joyce’s son, is a leger painter and Ted suggested before he passed away that we look at Darryl’s work. We did and acquired our first ledger painting.  The last painting by Darryl that Ted bought he put on the ceiling over his bed so he could admire it when he was lying in bed!   My favorite of the works by Darryl in the exhibition is a depiction of traditional dancers in colored pencil, gold marker, graphite, ink and glue on an old ledger sheer. The artist dated his work 2012 beside the date on the sheet of 1871.  After writing this I see it is one of 3 candidates to be the cover of next year’s NMAI calendar!

I love collaborations so I will end with one.  This is by Darryl and his sister, Juanita.  It is a doll wearing an “Honor Dress” like we saw earlier.   Darryl painted the horse-raiding scene and Juanita created the doll and dress.  The Coe Foundation has a more elaborate doll by their mother Joyce which I have always loved.

To learn more you can look go to
The exhibition was curated by Emil Her Many Horses, Oglala Lakota, and will run through December 4 this year.

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