An abundance of stories animates the spectacular exhibit of Plains Indian art that’s wrapping up its four-month stay at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The stories span perhaps 2,000 years and recount the lives and dreams and still-vibrant spirits of those who populated the vast central grasslands of the North American continent.
I made another visit over the weekend to get a last encounter with these stories before “The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth & Sky” moves on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Carved stone pipes bear the forms of human and animal figures, relating the users’ beliefs in drawing strength and vision from the natural world. An otter bag carries a direct message from the Kansa people, who roamed the riverbanks in these parts around the time in the early 1800s when the fact-gathering American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed through. Painted drums, feathered fans and a mesmerizing series of decorated buffalo skins signal stories of survival, conquest, self-image and supplication. And, at the very end of the exhibit, artist Wendy Red Star’s quartet of four-seasons, self-portrait photographs confront the viewer with an argument meant to challenge much of what you’ve experienced up till that moment.
“The Plains Indians” exhibit, organized by the Nelson in collaboration with the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris and the Met in New York, where it will open in March, presents a transporting and enlightening experience. (And I say that regardless of my friendship with its curator, the Nelson’s Gaylord Torrence.) It helped boost the Nelson’s attendance to a record level in 2014. Its waning days are crowded, though not uncomfortably so, and its low-light quiet still provides opportunity to revel in and meditate on its many pleasures and mysteries.
See it before it closes at the Nelson-Atkins on Jan. 11; Torrence will give a wrap-up talk at 5 p.m. that day. And while you’re at it, don’t miss a companion show of historic photographs of native Americans taken by Alexander Gardner in the Kansas frontier and beyond in 1867-68. The show begins with a rare and fascinating image of riverside Kansas City from that pre-urban period.