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.