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Splendid Heritage: Perspectives on American Indian Art

February 10, 2009 - January 3, 2010


The Utah Museum of Fine Arts is presenting the landmark exhibition, Splendid Heritage: Perspectives on American Indian Art, featuring 145 objects of unique artistry and powerful cultural expression. This world-class show presents a wealth of early Plains, Plateau, and Northeastern American Indian material from the private collection of John and Marva Warnock.

Visitors to Splendid Heritage encounter 18th and 19th century American Indian objects of unparalleled beauty and craftsmanship, including beaded tobacco bags, weapons, dolls, cradles, war shirts, dresses, moccasins and more -- a majority of which have never been on public view prior to this exhibition.

Splendid Heritage examines American Indian objects as both works of art and cultural artifacts, bringing to light the fascinating intersection of culture and art. Emma Hansen, senior curator of the Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, and Bernadette Brown, curator of African, Oceanic and New World Art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts collaborated to help visitors connect the cultural and fine arts perspectives of the objects featured in the exhibition.

"All of the objects in the exhibition illustrate how items of daily use can be elevated from mere utility to breathtaking examples of artistic skill and vision," said Bernadette Brown. "Among the many masterworks are a Man's Shirt from ca. 1860, with its exquisite wrapped quill design in iridescent yellow, red and blue; a Cradle made ca. 1860, which demonstrates the artistry of American Indian women; and a Pipe Bag created around 1875 that serves as a superb example of pictographic beadwork."

As co-curator Emma Hansen explains, "In addition to their intrinsic artistry and creativity, such works are powerful and often multi-layered expressions of cultural knowledge, biographical and historical experiences, and a spirituality that guides all aspects of the artists' lives."

Visitors of all ages enjoy the innovative and engaging presentation of objects in Splendid Heritage and learn more about them in a variety of ways:

In addition, a variety of engaging public programs has been organized throughout the run of the exhibition to help children and adults learn more about the Plains, Plateau and Northeastern American Indians. Planned programming includes a Wednesday lecture series, a fascinating film series, art classes, family and community events, and an evening for educators. Most of the Splendid Heritage programming is free of charge. For more information please visit www.umfa.utah.edu or contact the Museum's education department at 801-581-3580.

The Splendid Heritage exhibition is presented as an educational project in conjunction with We Shall Remain, an ambitious television series created by KUED. We Shall Remain offers insight into the extraordinary world of Utah's five tribes -- the Paiute, Ute, Navajo, Goshute and Northern Shoshone -- in five 30-minute documentaries. The Utah Museum of Fine Arts is pleased to contribute to the efforts of the We Shall Remain community coalition by providing the public with a greater understanding and appreciation of the art and culture of American Indians.

When Splendid Heritage ends its premiere run at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in January 2010, the exhibition will embark on a multi-year national tour.

A beautiful 250 page, full-color Splendid Heritage catalogue published by the University of Utah Press is available for sale in The Museum Store.


Public programs

Film Series: Saturdays at 2 pm in the Katherine W. and Ezekiel Dumke Jr. Auditorium, Free and open to the public

Lecture Series: Free and open to the public in the Katherine W. and Ezekiel Dumke Jr. Auditorium

Third Saturdays: Free and open to the public in the Emma Eccles Jones Education Center

Other programs:

Adult Class: American Indian Art of the Northeast and Plains. Wednesdays from 6-8 pm, April 8, 15, 22, 29 and May 6. In this class co-sponsored by the UMFA and the U of U Lifelong Leaning Program, participants will spend time in the exhibition and explore the customs and traditions of Native people both before and after European contact. The class will focus on their adaptation to new environments, spiritual life, and the function of art within their communities. The class will be taught by Splendid Heritage co-curator, Bernadette Brown. Advanced registration is required by calling 801-587-5433, code LLPOT 685-001. Fee.

Child class: American Indian Art. July 27-30, 10 am-12:30 pm. Children ages 6-12 can enjoy a special in-depth exploration of Splendid Heritage at the UMFA. Explore American Indian art, materials and techniques through daily hands-on art making and gallery games. Advanced registration required by calling 801-581-6984. Fee.

For more information, please visit umfa.utah.edu or call 801.581.7332

(above: Club, ca. 1800, Plains, Sioux, maple wood, iron spike, and pigment. WC8612011)

American Indian combat techniques involved a great deal of hand-to-hand combat. Though they served a strictly utilitarian purpose, clubs were also the focus of superb decoration. The very shape of a club expresses a delicate balance between utility and the beauty of design. Most clubs taper down to a narrow handle that allowed for ease in grasping and wielding the club in combat. Weighted at the top, the club can be swung in an easy arc towards its target. The ergonomic design results in an elegant form that is further embellished with carvings and additional decorative elements. Each man fashioned his club according to his personal vision.

Plains warriors often carved ball-headed clubs with figures of animals or human heads for close fighting. After acquiring firearms and metal tomahawks in the early nineteenth century, Sioux men continued to carry the clubs in military society dances or as symbols of prestige. This unusual club features a full human figure with his arms wrapped around the ball. The flattened, elongated shaft of this ball-headed war club plays off against the smooth rounded ball of the head. The three-dimensional human figure, with its zigzag lines, contrasts with the smooth handle and ball and forms a bridge that connects the two elements.

(above: Knife and Sheath, ca. 1840, Northeast, Ojibwa, Sheath: tanned hide, porcupine quills, seed beads, tin cones, red-dyed horsehair, Knife: steel, bone, copper, WC8308030)

Knives, carried by both sexes, were a necessity in American Indian life and were used as both tools and weapons. Men carried knives obtained through trade on war expeditions for use in hand-to-hand combat. Women often made beautiful knife sheaths decorated with porcupine quills or glass beads.

While knives were first and foremost objects of utility, their decorations and intricate sheaths raise them above the status of merely practical objects. The sheaths demonstrate the skill and artistry of their makers through color choice, placement of designs, and virtuosic use of materials, whether quills or beads. The knives demonstrate a similar creativity in the decoration of an essentially utilitarian object.

This sheath is a rare surviving example of loom-woven quillwork. The colors now appear subdued, but would have been more intense if the blue tones had not faded. The pattern may have been inspired by the diamond back rattlesnake, whose skin has the same alternating diamond and triangular shapes.

(above: Doll, ca. 1800, Subarctic, Swampy Cree, wool cloth, cotton cloth, glass seed beads, tanned hide, wool yarn, wood, sinew, thread, human hair. WC8905031)

Like girls everywhere, Native American girls often practiced their future roles as adult women and mothers through play. They played with miniature tipis, toy horses, dolls, and doll cradles. Mothers and grandmothers often made beautiful dolls dressed in authentic tribal style clothing as reflections of love for their daughters and granddaughters.

This doll is from the Northeast and represents the creative range of doll making in the region. The doll wears clothing made of elegant materials derived from European designs rather than native ones, with the exception of the doll's hood. Based on the high quality of the beadwork, the clothing worn by the doll reflects those likely used for ceremonial occasions.


(above: Cradle, ca.1860, Plains, Kiowa, rawhide, tanned deerskin, cotton cloth, glass pony beads, wood backboards. WC8401019)

The making of a finely beaded cradle expressed the importance of strong family ties and the practical and spiritual value of children. Carried on a mother's back or propped up in camp while the mother and female relatives worked, a cradle provided comfort, safety, and a clear view of the world for the baby held within.

Among Plains Native people, the making of a beautifully decorated cradle symbolized the welcoming of a baby into the family. Grandmothers or aunts among the Kiowa, in particular, often designed and created the child's cradle while their husbands cut and finished the boards. Prayers of thanks and blessings for the baby accompanied their work.

The designs on this cradle demonstrate the use of symmetry and geometric forms that is so much a part of the Plains Indian aesthetic. What makes this cradle stand out is the use of starkly contrasting colors of deep red and blue, and the subtle changes in the size of the diamond and oval motifs. The top of the support boards feature a symmetrical painted arrow motif and are outlined with pierced holes, giving texture and color to the otherwise plain wood.

Additional images

Please click here to view additional images of objects in the exhibition.


Audio scripts

Please click here to view the MP3 player audio scripts for the exhibition.


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