Art of the Native Americans: The Thaw Collection comes to Minneapolis


On October 24, an exhibit of some of the most beautiful works of North American Indian art will be coming to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). The exhibit, called Art of the Native Americans: The Thaw Collection consists of 110 pieces drawn from the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of North American Indian Art at the Fenimore Art Museum (FAM) in Cooperstown, New York.  

Eugene Thaw, originally from New York, is known internationally as an art dealer, collector, and author. In 1987, he and his wife Clare began collecting American Indian art. After four years, the couple had collected 250 objects, which they decided to donate to the public, choosing FAM in part because they had once owned a farm near Cooperstown, where the museum is located.

The exhibit, which will be at the Cleveland Museum of Art before it arrives in Minneapolis, moving to Dallas and Indianapolis afterward, will have a local twist wherever it goes, according to MIA associate curator Joe Horse Capture. He said the MIA will organize the objects by geographic origins, not thematically, which is similar to how the MIA’s Native American rooms are already organized. The exhibit will be divided into Arctic, Northwest Coast, Southwest, Plains, and Woodlands regions.  

Horse Capture wants to provide a greater sense of connection between historical and contemporary Native American art. To give that context, people can watch video interviews with local Native American artists and leaders who testify about how Native art fits into their life. Some of the interviewees are Navajo playwright Rhiana Yazzie, Navajo visual artist and curator Carolyn Anderson, and Yup’ik choreographer Emily Johnson, who are well respected in their specialized areas.

In Johnson’s interview, she talks about her Yup’ik Dance Fans, which relates to the historical Yup’ik Dance Fans found in the exhibit. Horse Capture said that Johnson talks about the Dance Fans “as living beings”, which he likes because “in a museum, there is a whole life that the objects have. The objects are revealing about who made them and why, which he hopes visitors take away from the exhibit. “We want the visitor to see these objects are not static,” Horse Capture said. 

There will also be videos by Tlingit artist Nicholas Galanin, who mixes contemporary and traditional art forms in his work. In one video, called “Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan part 1,” the artist films a contemporary break dance inspired piece performed to a traditional First Nation soundtrack.  

Among the stunning pieces is the brilliant red Nimi’ipuu Horse Mask, (ca. 1875-1900) containing intricate beadwork, feathers, ribbon, dyed horse hair and ermine. Horse masks were used by Nimi’ipuu warriors as part of ceremonial processions as preparation for war.

Also on display will be a Central Yup’ik Nepcetat Mask (ca. 1850) made from wood, feathers, fox teeth, sealskin and seal blood. Necpcetat masks were once used by shamans for healing, divining, and calling animals to hunters.

Horse Capture said that the MIA is promoting the exhibit to a wide range of audiences, but with a strong effort to bring in the local Native American community. The museum is even providing educational tours by appointment in  Anishinabe and Dakota languages – a challenge, given the gaps between languages and translations.  

Connected with the exhibit, there will be several events where visitors can learn more about the exhibit. On October 24, Eva Fognell, Curator of the Thaw Collection, will give an overview of the exhibition from 2-3 p.m. at Pillsbury Auditorium. On November 11 (from 11 a.m. -12 p.m. at Pillsbury Auditorium) art scholar Janet Catherine Berlo will examine works in the Thaw Collection by three important Native artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Then on December 4 (2-3 p.m. at Pillsbury Auditorium) Researcher Ruth B. Phillips explores the Native American art collections of British and American military officers during the late 18th and early 19th century.

The exhibit runs from October 24, 2010 through January 9, 2011. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is located at 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. For more info call 888-642-2787 or see their website at: