Art Wants to be Free
March 25, 2010
A Free Museum? That’s a novel concept! As it happens, however, it’s not so novel after all, as evidenced by the Cleveland Museum of Art, with free admission since the museum opened in 1916. Away from Santa Fe for a bit, I wandered back in some old stomping grounds, with the pleasant addition of sunshine and blue skies, something not typically encountered in Northeast Ohio at this time of year. While I would love to take credit for bringing the Santa Fe sun with me, in truth, I was just plain lucky. A further piece of luck was the exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of the Thaw Collection of America Indian Art, on tour from the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY.
The Fenimore, housed in a 1932 Georgian mansion, underwent an exciting expansion in 1995 when Eugene and Clare Thaw of Santa Fe made a gift of a remarkable assembly of Native arts to this wonderful small museum. Frankly, I had never heard of the museum, despite my long-standing love for James Fenimore Cooper‘s books, set in colonial America. The Thaws’ gift led to an 18,000 square foot addition to the museum, which now houses their fine collection, acquired over the years when Mr. Thaw was a dealer in Old Master paintings and drawings. The Thaws’ expertise and patient attention to building this comprehensive collection continues today, as they still contribute new pieces to the Fenimore Museum. And with this exhibition, on its first stop of a national tour, there were many stunning pieces there for me and other museum-goers to enjoy right here in Ohio!
The exhibit is well-curated and very easy to enjoy over the course of several hours. The works are grouped by region, moving from the Northwest to the Southwest and spanning several centuries, with the majority of pieces being from the 1800’s, as the U.S. expanded westward. Interestingly, the timeline laid out for the show begins at 1600, when Spain began to colonize New Mexico, and what we might call the age of the collector began! Not until the 1960’s do the tribes and pueblos begin to receive Constitutional protections with the passing of the American Indian Civil Rights Act, followed by the Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 and the Graves Protection Act in 1990. One can be grateful for the opportunity to enjoy these objects, but also be aware that the trail to seeing these works is strewn with blood and tears.
The broad overview provided by this exhibit not only demonstrates the skill and beauty of the works themselves, but also informs the viewer on how the artists prized the invisible qualities of the objects, qualities such as the correct method of gathering materials, their sound and usefulness, and the powers that may have derived from a vision or how often the planned object may be used in a ritual or ceremony. The exhibition is very tastefully mounted with just enough work to demonstrate symmetries in design and function, yet avoiding the exhaustion that can occur when there is just too much to see.
In the first room were works from Northwest Coastal Native artisans, with the entrance to the exhibit flanked by two massive upright Tlingit log posts, each depicting Raven bringing the gift of daylight to man, and each carved by a different artist. Many of the NW works dealt with shamanism, with rattles, masks and ritual objects displaying exaggerated eyes, emaciated forms and mouths that are calling or singing to the spirits. An octopus shaman’s mask suggests that the shaman can squeeze himself into hidden caverns and obscure himself from view. A Nootka piece shows an extended tongue representing the transfer of knowledge and power. There is one beautiful 1830 carved statue of a woman, likely a Haida tourist piece and consequently in excellent condition. A Nootka war helmet seemed similar to a Samurai war helmet, with its crest denoting status in the community. It’s fascinating to see materials so different from those of our New Mexico Pueblos, with the north-westerners using things such as sheep horns steamed, shaped and then carved, or snail opercula – the little flap that closes the hole in the shell after the snail is inside – used for decoration. A giant greasy bowl used in a potlatch is shaped like an upside down whale, providing wealth for the feast from the belly of the beast, both literally and figuratively. Many cultures have a representation of an old witch, be it Dzoonakwa who keeps the Kwakiutl children in line or La Llorona who keeps New Mexico kids hiding in their beds.
The second room featured works by Arctic and Sub-Arctic peoples such as the Yup’ik, the Gwi’chin, the Inupiat and the Aleut. The walrus ivory carving used as a harpoon counterweight showed how the whale comes full circle in its own demise. Yup’ik dancers apparently never dance with bare hands, and the two beautiful dance fans on display are two-sided with a smiling male half and a frowning female half; it would be interesting to know why the distaff side doesn’t smile. Does the fact that woman’s work is never done make it harder to celebrate? As with all indigenous hunting cultures, every part of the hunted is used in its entirety, as demonstrated by a parka made of seal guts. Carved wooden goggles are a testimony to blinding snow, but Raven as depicted by the Yup’ik is not as angular a carving, seeming to be a smoother fellow and less dangerous than his Haida cousin.
Entering the third room was like coming home to the Southwest, with a Pueblo head-dress of rain clouds reminding me that although I was enjoying sunny days, we in the high mountain desert welcome and treasure our precipitation. In addition to several Mimbres pots, there was a blackware pot by Maria Martinez and an equally gorgeous polychrome vessel that she made with her husband Julian. A contemporary flavor was imparted by a beautiful highly polished vessel created by Nancy Youngblood of Santa Clara Pueblo, that was specifically commissioned by the Cleveland Museum for their collection. Zuni water vessels, Navajo (Dine) weavings, an Apache basket – we Santa Fesinos are lucky to be able to see examples of these arts whenever we ant at our excellent Museum of Indian Arts and Culture or the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (also with free admission!).
The next section of the exhibit highlighted California and the Great Basin. Basketry was totally the star, with a Karuk woman’s woven basket hat similar in shape to a Muslim prayer cap or a yarmulke, both of which are frequently in evidence in Cleveland, a very multicultural city. A Hupa jump basket of hazel and spruce from the 1800’s was probably every bit a fashionable and desirable in its time as a Chanel bag is today. Two large 1900 Maidu gambling trays, beautifully woven, were food for thought about how gambling has evolved into tribal self-sufficiency today. Glass-beaded Wappo baskets with noticeably misplaced beads showed the same purposeful error seen in fine Navajo rugs. The accompanying text tells how “a basket is a song made visible,” noting that a variety of songs are required for all stages of crafting these beautiful and useful objects.
The Great Plains are on dispaly in the fifth room, with a haunting Lakota message that “something sacred wears me,” a reminder that putting on special garments is putting on all that they represent. There is an Osage woman’s robe appliqued with hands, beaded and made of wool, used for a friendhip blanket to tell someone you care for that it goes from hands that love you to your hands. A Lakota war hide depicts a battle, although the warriors are shown in ceremonial garments rather than the tough and dirty outfits necessary to wage a battle. A Nez Perce horse mask proves that even the horses got gussied up in pre-war ceremonies conducted to ensure a victory. A carved Lakota pipe from the 1880’s depicts three important totems: elk – denoting love – turtle – denoting steadfastness – and buffalo – the provider. An incredibly elaborate Ojibwa kinfe sheath from 1830 was made more beautiful by its evident use than the 1998 beaded medicine bag also on display.
The exhibition ends in the east, ranging down the coast from the northern woodlands to Florida, where the Seminole fled to escape relocation. The north-eastern MicMac cutwork evokes the larger cutwork of the Seminole, although the MicMac use the tiniest of seed beads for decoration. A Huron sash wove the seed beads right into the work rather than sewing them on afterwards. A Noskapi/Innu summer hunter’s coat shows the influence of European fashion in its flared and gusseted design. Thunderbird is depicted here in the east, as well as the west, denoting both rain and success in war in a 1790 bag. A Fox medicine bag shows Underwater Panther (a new spirit to me), who makes the waters turbulent and treacherous, but who also brings all the attendant virtues of life-giving water. One of the items of traditional dress still most used today, the sash, was represented by a lovely Choctaw example from 1800. Two of the oldest pieces in the exhibit are in this section, with a 1300-1500 clay head effigy from the Parkin site in Arkansas and a neck ornament to mark someone’s rank from Oklahoma, circa 1200, making this revealing and engrossing exhibit seem to end back near the beginning.
Jim Hart, a Haida artist, says it best: “When you stand there and hang on (to the object), you’re hanging on to all your history.” And that is what is so wonderful about this show – it’s not just art, it’s history too, one of the things that is special about any museum visit. You go in to learn, and you come out with more questions and a desire to return for answers. And one of the things that’s so special about the Cleveland Museum of Art is that you can go in and out with your questions as often as you want. Why? Because it’s always free!!