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Museum continues bold commitment to American Indian fine arts

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – American Indian art took its place among the great art of the world in 2009.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, recognized internationally as one of the finest general art museums in the country, opened the doors to its new American Indian Art Gallery to a standing room only crowd Nov. 7. The opening drew 5,000 visitors in its first weekend, said Gaylord Torrence, the Fred and Virginia Merrill senior curator of American Indian Art.

“People from all over the country have heard about the Nelson-Atkins,” said Kevin Pourier, an Oglala Lakota buffalo horn artist who traveled from Pine Ridge, S.D. for the gallery opening. “The place was just buzzing. The displays were so beautifully done. It was state of the art.”

This headdress was worn by a man who would have been known for his military achievement, personal valor and leadership. Each tail feather represents a distinct honor earned in war by the wearer or other tribal members, and the headdress in its totality symbolizes the owner’s bravery, political stature and responsibility to the people.

The new suite of galleries is among the largest devoted to American Indian art in any comprehensive art museum in the world. “It is our goal in this new installation to present the extraordinary vision of Native American artists from many cultures and throughout time,” Torrence said.

The galleries have increased space for American Indian art at the museum from 1,500 square feet to more than 6,000 square feet. They are located adjacent to the museum’s reinstalled American galleries that opened in April. “It is our intent to present American Indian art as an important part of America’s cultural legacy,” said Marc F. Wilson, director and CEO at the Nelson.

The involvement of the community, contemporary Native artists, scholars, collectors and dealers has created what Wilson calls “a unique grounding for the museum’s initiative.”

The collection includes works from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and a few objects dating back prior to European contact. Works include Plains quillwork, beadwork and sculpture, Pueblo pottery, Southwestern jewelry, Navajo textiles and California and Plateau basketry. The works of art displayed are organized into eight cultural areas: Woodlands, Plains, Southwest, Plateau, California, Great Basin, Northwest Coast and Arctic.

The gallery showcases nearly 200 works from Native cultures across North America, from the ceremonial and ornate, to the functional, to the whimsical and the poignant.

One of the most moving displays is a Lakota pictographic dress, circa 1895. The dress is painted with battle scenes that tell a story. The dress belonged to Silent Woman, whose brother was killed in battle with the Crow. The dresses could only be worn by women who had lost relatives in war.

In contrast to displaying works as cultural artifacts or historical relics of past civilizations, the primary focus of the installation is artistic quality. A number of works are recognized as masterpieces: A majestic Cheyenne eagle feather war bonnet; an Arikara buffalo shield made from buffalo rawhide, native leather and native pigment, considered a masterpiece of Plains Indian visionary painting; a Mississippian human effigy jar, widely recognized as the finest of its type.

“Gaylord Torrence has a great eye for picking art,” Pourier said.

The collection finely illustrates the seamless connection of art and the natural world in Native cultures. Visitors will find works made from a wide array of materials from the natural environment: Wood, birch bark, stone, turquoise, eagle, owl and hawk feathers, clam shells, porcupine quills, moose hair, bird claws, walrus ivory and buffalo horn.

“Native American art is a distillation of the land,” said Torrence, who is recognized as one of the nation’s foremost authorities in the field. “As we seek to know this land, we will look to Native Americans.”

One of the contemporary artists included in the collection is Pourier, whose chosen medium is the buffalo horn. Buffalo, Pourier explained, was once a primary source of sustenance in Lakota life and at the center of his people’s ceremonies. “It was just a natural fit.”

Pourier’s work exemplifies the melding of tradition and innovation. He counts among his influences, the graphic artist M.C. Escher. Pourier’s work, “Warrior Shades,” are reading glasses that incorporate buffalo-horned rims. The “Rez Ban” inscription, he explains, is a humorous play on the Ray-Ban sunglasses brand.

Also featured are the works of modern and contemporary artists, Santa Clara potter Roxanne Swentzell, and Cochiti artist Diego Romero.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is recognized nationally and internationally as one of America’s finest encyclopedic art museums. The museum has exhibited American Indian art since its inception in 1933, a time when few art museums featured Native art. With the new galleries, Nelson-Atkins assumes a leadership role in the promotion and display of American Indian objects as works of fine art.

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at