|A horse effigy carving, c. 1880, by a Hunkpapa |
Lakota artist (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)
Some of the earliest surviving art by native North Americans left America long ago. Soldiers, traders and priests, with magpie eyes for brilliance, bundled it up and shipped it across the sea to Europe. Painted robes, embroidered slippers and feathered headdresses tinkling with chimes found their way into cupboards in 18th-century London and Paris, and lay there half-forgotten. Now, in “The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, some of those wondrous things have come home. Of the about 130 pieces in the show, on loan from more than 50 international collections, those sent by the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris are exceptional: a drawing, on animal hide, of a half-abstract bird with prismatic wings; a raven-plume bonnet with feathers swept back as if hit by wind; and a bead-encrusted shoulder bag with a double-crescent design. They are all part of an exhibition that has to be one of the most completely beautiful sights in New York right nowThe exhibition chronicles the rise of Plains Indian society and its development from the settled farming communities to a more mobile lifestyle until it too was smashed:
The United States government, with the Army and frontier settlers as its enforcer, stripped Native Americans of their land and contributed to all but wiping out the natural resources that sustained them. Reduced to the status of hostile aliens, American Indians battled one another over whatever scraps were left. The exhibition’s curator [...] could have ended the show there, on a tragic vanishing-people note. But wisely, and realistically, they did not. Instead, they bring the story into the present with work by inspired artists who carry Plains traditions into the 21st century.