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Arts & Life

A Nelson Curator's Favorite Works In 'The Plains Indians' Exhibition

Laura Spencer

The new exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, includes nearly 140 masterworks from private and public collections across North America and Europe. 

There’s a 2,000-year-old pipe, 18th century-painted robes and beaded designer shoes from 2011. 

Some curators might find it offensive if someone asked them to choose a few favorite works — well, actually, just two — from an exhibition they'd worked on for nearly five years. 

"Two? You maniac," joked Gaylord Torrence, senior curator of American Indian art at the Nelson-Atkins. "It's an impossible question first of all." 

But Torrence was able to narrow it down, and share stories about some of his favorites: 

Credit Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha
This painting by artist Karl Bodmer (c. 1833) depicts the buffalo robe by a Lakota artist on display at the Nelson. It has a classic box-and-border composition.

Robe, c. 1830, Lakota (Teton Sioux) artist, South Dakota. Stuttgart (Germany), Linden-Museum, State Museum of Ethnology, Collection Maximilian Prince of Wied. 

"One is an extraordinary robe painted by a woman in a design called box and border. It's basically a very abstract depiction of the internal structure of a buffalo.

"It's executed in black, red and clear sizing that becomes white after the hide is painted. It's one of the most beautiful abstractions that I have ever seen. 

"It also has a really illustrious history — it was collected by (German) Prince Maximilian at Fort Pier on the Missouri River in 1833."

Artist Karl Bodmer painted a woman wearing this robe. And, according to Torrence, "she probably was the artist (of the robe), as well."

Wounded Knee No. 111, 2001, Arthur Amiotte (1942 - ). Oglala Lakota (Teton Sioux), South Dakota. Chicago (Illinois), The University of Chicago, lent by the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art. 

Torrence also highlighted Arthur Amiotte's mixed media collage, Wounded Knee #111.  In 1890, the Seventh Cavalry of the U.S. Army gathered forces against the Lakota at the Pine Ridge Reservation. At least 150 — mostly unarmed — men, women and children were killed at Wounded Knee. 

"It's one of several works that Amiotte has created about the great tragedy at Wounded Knee and the end of the Ghost Dance among the Lakota. Amiotte lost his great-grandmother at Wounded Knee. Ironically, his great-grandfather (Standing Bear) was traveling with Buffalo Bill in Europe at the time. 

"I love this collage because it depicts the complexity of the time, the event, the forces that were brought together both before and during the massacre. As a painting, as a collage, it's extremely beautiful, but it's also an extremely moving work to me ... it also is a wonderful depiction of the Plains landscape itself. The juxtaposition of living peoples on the one hand and the aftermath of the battle, and the entire thing being encircled with newspaper clippings of the day." 

Listen to artist Arthur Amiotte talk about his own work here: 

The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., Kansas City, Mo., Sept. 19, 2014 - Jan. 11, 2015. 

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