Editorials

New exhibit at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins presents the astounding art of the Plains Indians

This is one of several buffalo robes displayed in the “Plains Indians” exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The exhibit runs from Sept. 19 through Jan. 11, 2015, then on to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This is one of several buffalo robes displayed in the “Plains Indians” exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The exhibit runs from Sept. 19 through Jan. 11, 2015, then on to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Kansas City Star

It is absolutely fitting — and thrilling — that some of the most beautiful cultural expressions of the region’s native peoples are now gathered in the gateway city of the Great Plains.

A new exhibit, “Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky,” opens to the public Friday at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Expect it to astound and enlighten thousands of visitors over the next three and a half months.

There are many reasons to applaud this show. It resulted from the painstaking and intensely detailed effort of curator Gaylord Torrence to assemble more than 120 objects for display from dozens of institutional and private collections in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Torrence and the Nelson collaborated with the Musee du quai Branly in Paris, where the exhibit debuted last April and which holds a significant collection of Native American works, including several extraordinary painted buffalo robes. And it bridges the often contentious scholarly divide between anthropology and art history, which will help prompt discussion among viewers of the nature of art and cultural context.

Most important, perhaps, the show tells stories of life and spirit that span centuries and, in its closing section of contemporary art works, declares that the lineage of tradition and creative exploration remains vital.

Anyone who sees “Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” will revel in its quiet collective power. And undoubtedly visitors will find favorites among the impressively crafted pieces and the many absorbing small details. They include the spirit figure carved into a pipe to face the smoker as well as the blend of natural and commercial materials from buffalo hides and porcupine quills to colorful trade beads and shells to Hudson Bay cloth and weasel fur.

Go see it.

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