Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand–the Art Institute’s magnificent exhibit of almost 300 stunningly beautiful Amerindian objects, some as old as 7,000 years–offers evidence of a very different worldview from our own. As curator Richard Townsend says in his catalog essay, these ancient peoples in the southern and midwestern United States believed they were participating in a “network of connections” that included the “powers inherent in rivers, rocks, mountains” and the “all-powerful forces of life, death, and renewal.” Though he used aesthetic merit as the principal criterion for inclusion in the exhibit, he also told me that usually the best pieces “have the greatest charge of cultural content.” In fact the artifacts in this show can stand alongside the great works in any tradition.
As in other non-Western cultures, the human-animal hybrids here are signs of the deep connections drawn between animals and people. A ceremonial deer mask (AD 1250-1400) is a human face of carved wood with white shells for its powerfully blank eyes; carved antlers project elegantly into space. Birdman, who wears a hawk mask and whose human arms are feathered, is engraved on a whelk shell (AD 1200-1400); as in many such engravings, the curves of the human shape accord with the shell’s curves.
A group of ceramic vessels from archaeological sites in Arkansas shows an appealing variety of apparently abstract patterns in red, black, and white, their curves often rhyming with the objects’ three-dimensional forms. But in a reminder of these objects’ cultural significance, a wall label informs us that some striking starlike shapes are representations of enemies’ stretched scalps. A large group of Caddo ceramics shows a similarly inventive variety. A tripod bottle (AD 1400-1700) has arched band designs above each curved arch between the bulbous legs, while a straight band above each leg points to it. The way three seed jars (AD 1400-1500) were fired produced random light and dark “clouds,” which recall some styles of Japanese landscape painting.
It’s likely that the notion of art for art’s sake didn’t exist for most or all of these peoples–that every object here was connected to a use, to their cosmology, or to both. Townsend says that hands had many meanings; in one culture, he writes, the hand was a symbol of the constellation Orion, “seen as a gathering place for souls of the dead on their way to join others as stars in the Milky Way.” In some of the earlier pieces here, the human hand seems to point to realms beyond itself. The elongated fingers of a hand cutout made from sheets of mica (AD 1-400) all point straight out from the palm. And the outline of a hand on an engraved circular palette (100 BC-AD 300) reaches almost to the stone disk’s borders, as if trying to reach past them.
Most of these works will not be on public view after the show completes its tour. Many come from private collections, the majority of those owned by museums are kept in storage, and the Art Institute owns none. Townsend says he was astounded to discover during his four years of searching for objects that despite 150 years of archaeology in these areas, “the only place that really showed a wide range of this work to advantage and told the story in a contextual and narrative fashion was the Ohio Historical Society.”
The Art Institute’s exhibit ends with a useful collection of engravings by 16th-century Flemish artist Theodor de Bry, based on original sketches and paintings of America’s indigenous communities when Europeans first encountered them. Providing information about life in these cultures, they also illuminate the difference between tame picture windows on a way of life and the Amerindian use of art to invoke the cosmos.
Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South
Where: Art Institute, Michigan & Adams
When: Through January 30
The Mitchell Museum’s On the Back of the Great Turtle–a small exhibit of bags, baskets, moccasins, and other artifacts made by Great Lakes Indians–nicely complements Townsend’s show. These cultures were decimated by the arrival of Europeans, and since the objects here are from the last two centuries, many are irritatingly pretty, perhaps designed for the tourist trade. Others are wonderful. Ilona Stanley’s stark birch bark piece, produced by the traditional technique of biting a design into folded bark, contrasts symmetrical abstract floral patterns with the bark’s irregular striations. And the three bands of diamond patterns in a woven bag produce an inspired mix of repetition and improvised variety.
On the Back of the Great Turtle: Native People of the Great Lakes
Where: Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, 2600 Central Park, Evanston
When: Through February 6
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.