Over 100 pieces of American Indian art – including ritual objects, pottery, basketry and textiles – give our newest exhibition Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection a diverse and informative angle. The IMA’s access to these works is amazing in and of itself, but upon looking deeper into the variety of art featured in the Clowes Special Exhibition Gallery, it’s clear these pieces are more than just fun to look at.
The American Indian tradition is most immediately recognizable by its elaborate clothing and textiles; bright colors, rich textures, intricate patterns, soft feathers, complex beadwork, glimmering shells, painterly embroidery, and countless other materials define their clothing tradition. American Indian clothing has actually become a bit of a trend as of late – “Navajo” patterns and prints dominate stores like Urban Outfitters, which has recently come under fire for falsely identifying their clothes as such. Clothing, jewelry, and accessories in imitation-Indian styles were deemed “distasteful” and “racially demeaning,” and while that was most likely not the intention, it makes you wonder why the Urban Outfitters buyers were so careless about what they were selling. They didn’t know an authentic print from a fake, but how could they? Along with this new “trend” comes an equally prevalent lack of education about American Indian traditions, which is why collections like the Thaws’ are so necessary.
The fashion news enthusiast in me was drawn first to the clothing and textiles in the exhibition; I was fascinated to see the original patterns and techniques American Indians created. I was uninformed about… well, everything beyond what I learned in elementary school. None of my high school courses embraced the subject, nor did I ever realize I was missing out on vital information.
I decided textiles would be my starting point.
The difference between authentic American Indian textiles and the imitations we see in boutiques is context. Girls today wear “Navajo” patterns because they’re cute and colorful; American Indians wore them to tell a story. Each piece has meaning – often about spirituality, family, and even animals. Take the seal gut parka for example: Eskimo hunters wore these to protect themselves from wind and rain, but they let the parkas themselves emphasize their respect for the animal. Women carefully cleaned and blew air into the guts, then made the tubes opaque by freeze-drying them. Then they stitched V-shaped patterns to represent harpoon heads, wolves’ teeth, and mountains.
Hunters also wore hunting coats which covered the entire body and were often constructed of caribou skin. While at first it doesn’t seem particularly striking, the coat is rich with spiritual symbolism: the elaborate painted decorations were meant to honor the spirits of the caribou as well as bring success in the hunt. The triangular gusset in the back symbolizes the magical mountain from which the caribou left to surrender to the hunters. The other patterns on the coat represent dreams, which wives interpreted and stitched into a design.
Dreams were meaningful and symbolic for American Indians, and something that was also appropriated by the consumer market in the form of fake plastic dreamcatchers sold at retailers across the country. Soldiers carried shields made of animal hides with feathered decorations on the front – the hide would repel arrows and clubs while the feathers represented a dream, which protected the warrior from harm. A spiritual green rainbow arcs over a white animal, presumed to be a lion, to represent a strong and able fighter. The entire piece resembles a traditional dreamcatcher, which was meant to catch its owner’s “good” dreams while releasing the “bad” dreams. Similarly, mystical concepts of the universe took shape in American Indian clothing. In the women’s buffalo robe the decoration isn’t to be interpreted in a single way – it could symbolize the life-giving powers of the universe, or simply focus on aesthetics and show a very abstract representation of a buffalo.
This is where American Indian art was ahead of its time; the introduction of abstract shapes and compositions was truly revolutionary. In the Chil’xáat Robe an image of a whale is broken down into geometric patterns and registers and woven across the sheath of wool; it is nearly unrecognizable at first.
The abstract idea goes even further with textiles like the “Eye Dazzler” Serape. Yarn needed to be commercially spun to satisfy traders’ needs, and this new practice was utilized in the serape. The bright yarns were woven into traditional serapes, creating a true juxtaposition of new vs. old techniques.
Rarely does art communicate history like a Native American piece. As Todd Bordeaux (a Rosebud Sioux from South Dakota) points out in our online multimedia section, Native American art goes beyond aesthetic value and beauty – instead, the indigenous treat their art as a form of activism. “We’re activists, and while we don’t march – we paint or draw or sculpt – and then we are able to educate people through the actual works.”