Commentary: Art Of The American Indian | KERA News

Commentary: Art Of The American Indian

Dallas, TX –

"Art of the American Indian: the Thaw Collection" is on view through Labor Day at the Dallas Museum of Art. The exhibition of 100 Native American works caused commentator Joan Davidow to contemplate how modern society has removed itself from the work of the hand.

When I saw a shiny white painted parka made out of the innards of a seal at the Art of the American Indian exhibition, I stopped me in my tracks. I was dumbfounded. First, who would even think of it; then, how would someone know how to use the intestinal linings in this way, and to boot, make something beautiful that would keep you warm in the coldest clime.

That's the core of this exhibition, all the stunning handmade works by American Indians from as far north as Alaska and south to Florida. The collection has a sensitivity way beyond the commonplace Native American art we regularly see in the southwest. The eye of the collector makes The Thaw Collection an impactful treasure. As an eclectic art dealer from New York City, Eugene Thaw handled everything from Renaissance prints to Impressionist paintings and European bronzes. When he and his wife Clare moved to Santa Fe hired to evaluate Georgia O'Keefe's estate in 1987, he became attracted to the native art of the area.

In just 25 years, they amassed a collection of over 800 pieces, each more spiritual than the next.

There are works that show porcupine quills imbedded in straight rows of embroidery, little tin cones smaller than a pencil that hang from the skirt and tingle while a dancer moves, wisps of horse hair on the tips of a long row of feathers along a chieftain's mantle, and duck and goose feathers that adorn a woman's fingers in puppetry.

This is handwork our hand cannot do in today's time. The work is so elegant, refined, and spiritual I felt as though I was the cavewoman, so raw and uncultured that hunting and gathering is all I can manage. My world no longer takes precious time to sit still, patiently making something from nothing, using grass to weave, plants to dye cloth, animal hair to plait, and that intestine to create fabric.

What have we lost by moving so fast we miss the simple pleasures of creating, making treasures that get passed down from generation to generation. What will I pass down? Certainly not my I-T tools, my plastic Tupperware bowls, or my Target t-shirts.

Good art does leave a mark on me. Though it doesn't just have to be about handwork. But when I see handwork of the likes of The Thaw Collection, I realize we are losing a quality of life beyond our own awareness.

Joan Davidow is director emerita of the Dallas Contemporary.

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