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A New Dawn

Art Review


Published March 15, 2006 at 5:00 a.m.


EXHIBIT: "Meeting the Dawn: First Nation Art from the Northeastern Woodlands," and paintings by N. Scott Momaday, from the Kiowa Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. Helen Day Art Center, Stowe. Through April 5.

ARTWORK: "The Colombian Triad" by N. Scott Momaday

When Fauvism, Die Brücke and other post-Impressionist European art movements began to emulate "primitivism" 100 years ago, they completely overlooked the art of North America's first nations of indigenous peoples. Native American art continues to be a regularly overlooked cultural resource. That's one reason the present Helen Day Art Center show in Stowe is important: It strives to redress the oversight. Another is that "Meeting the Dawn: First Nation Art from the Northeastern Woodlands" is a topnotch exhibition, juxtaposing traditional artistic forms with contemporary sensibilities.

Samples of the quintessentially traditional art of basketry provide one such juxtaposition. Three elegant baskets by Abenaki craftsman Jesse Larocque, built with black ash that's been hand-pounded, split and shaved, exemplify refined beauty. Such understated elegance has been intrinsic to woodlands basketry since time immemorial; later it was a vital influence on Shaker baskets. Judy Dow's "Recycled Baskets," on the other hand, are whimsically decorative and brashly modern. Her baskets are woven from colorful wires stripped out of telephones, fuzzy pipe cleaners and brightly hued yarn. Dow is of West-ern Abenaki lineage.

Robert Tannahill's artist statement confesses, "The Mohawk traditions have been lost to my family history." Tannahill's reinterpretations of Mohawk "False Face" masks into small totemic sculptures in the round are more personal than traditional. The semi-hollow, cylindrical faces are carved from polished plum, black walnut and spruce woods. Blown-glass interiors show through holes as eyes and mouths, and the masks are held together with copper wire.

Two triptychs in the exhibition do not have specific woodlands origins. "Andro&Gyne Triptych" by Christine Sioui of the Wendant (Huron) Abenaki has cross-cultural content: Its title refers to the Greek words for male and female. Sioui combined the nouns into "Andro&Gyne" as a label for her playful, textile portrayals of the androgynous, flute-playing deity Kokopelli, found in Anasazi rock art from the American Southwest. (Coincidentally, Kokopelli appears on the label of Vermont-brewed Rock Art beer.)

Sioui's three applique-encrusted Kokopelli images are individually titled and differentiated by color harmonies. Left to right are: "Courtship" in gold and green; "Wedding Dance" in red; and the "Birth of Andro Junior and Gyne Junior, or the division of the genders," portraying Kokopelli returning to the blackness of a universe studded with planets.

The second triptych, "The Colombian Triad" by N. Scott Momaday, is a monumental masterpiece. Momaday is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Guggenheim fellow who originally hails from the Kiowa Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. His tribe has a particularly strong visual-arts heritage, which includes pictorial calendars.

Momaday's roughly 12-foot-long "Triad" was painted on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World. Its canvasses, individually titled "Palos," "Admiral of the Sea" and "San Salvador," each represent a distinct phase in the epic voyage. Ironically, Momaday's figuration seems to have been influenced more by German Expressionist Emil Nolde than by Nolde's distant Kiowan contemporary, the artist Silver Horn. Momaday's five figures in shallow, dark, yet ethereal abstract spaces are iconographic actors, rather than specific individuals shaping events. Of "San Salvador" -- a painting of two figures that represents the landing of Columbus -- Momaday wrote: "The scene is to me both ominous and prophetic, symbolic of the domination of the Europeans over the indigenous peoples who greeted them

. . ." When Momaday's canvasses are contextualized as contemporary descendants of richly symbolic Kiowan chronicles, their debt to Silver Horn and other ledger artists of the early reservation era is thrown into sharp focus.

AbenakiNation.org states that the ancient names of the homeland of the Western Abenaki were "Ndakinna [Our Land] and Wabanaki [Dawn Land] in Vermont, New Hampshire and Southern Quebec." The Helen Day Art Center's "Meeting the Dawn" exhibit sheds new light on our common homeland in 21st-century Vermont.