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Nootka Mask, 1828, Vancouver Islands
© John Bigelow Taylor
by Sandra Kwock-Silve

art conquers Paris


A thematic show at the Mona Bismarck Foundation constitutes a rare opportunity to discover a remarkable selection of North American Indian objects and works of art belonging to the Eugene and Clare Thaw collection. Spectacular eagle-feathered headresses, masks, ceramics and basketry are just a few of the dozens of exhibits recalling the daily life of Indian tribes, throughout the United States and Canada.
The superbly decorated skin garments that open the show are rich in symbolism. They were created by the descendants of nomadic hunters who roamed the Great Plains for thousands of years. Apart from being their primary source of nourishment, bison furnished the hides which the Indians used for tipi coverings and clothing, the bones they transformed into tools and the sinew they employed as thread.
The Indians had shamanic beliefs that prompted them to communicate with the spirit of an animal before a hunt, or conjure up dream imagery to create art. Quill-worked patterns characteristic of these visions are featured on most of the garments on display, while equally distinctive geometric shapes appear on their carvings and paintings. Exclusive rights to a particular motif “dreamt up” via a given dream were passed down from one generation to the next and “kept in the family” by the women of each tribe.
By the 17th century, European influences started to reach the plains through trading networks. Horses and metal tools made life easier, while glass beads and cloth provided traditional art forms with new materials. The exhibition showcases horse masks and other ornamental equestrian gear, reflecting the Indians’ love of horseback riding.
Throughout, there is a tremendous sense of their mastery of an often hostile environment by the creative use of native materials for every imaginable purpose. The actual gathering and preparation of different varieties of grass, spruce or cedar bark, as well as cattail leaves and fern stems was a seasonal ritual that became an art form in itself. Each tribe developed its own twining or coiling techniques and basketry emerged as a highly-intricate mode of expression.
Traditionally, to become an artist one had to be born into a family through whom the “copyright” of an entire series of recurrent visual motifs had been “officially” transmitted! Basket weavers intermarried and their combined ideas slowly generated hitherto “unpublished” forms and patterns. One of the most stunning pieces in the show is a celebrated basket named “Beacon Lights,” created by the master weaver Louisa Keyser (1850-1925).

“Art des Indiens d’Amérique du Nord” daily from 10:30am to 6:30pm, closed Sun/Mon, to Mar 18, Mona Bismarck Foundation, 34, av de New York, 16e, tel:, M° Alma Marceau, free.

Galerie Urubamba: a forum for Indian culture

The beautiful Left Bank locale Galerie Urubamba was created by Roberta Rivin, an American specialist in Indian art from North and South America. When Rivin came to settle in Paris some 28 years ago, Latin American objects, jewelry and woven fabrics were all the rage. Rivin, who had lived in Brazil with her two young children was amazed that cheap and often poorly-made tourists souvenirs were generating so much interest in the world’s fashion capital. Roberta knew there existed quality items created by Indian craftsmen throughout the American continent.
“That was the actual beginning of the gallery,” she explains, “this desire I had to show fine traditional work, limited to one-of-a-kind pieces that are genuine works of art, rather than something mass-produced in quantity.” This month, the gallery spotlights a handsome selection of colorful hand sewn Mola from Panama, along with North American Indian war shirts, peace pipes and bags decorated with porcupine quills and moose hair.
Over the years, the gallery has developed as a bookstore and resource center, possessing some 3,000 volumes. Conferences, workshops and school visits focusing on Native American topics are scheduled regularly. And, in early May, a hands-on workshop on the creation of Molas will be taught by a Kuna Indian.
Rivin’s lifelong interest has been the study of societies that are very different from those found in Europe or the United States. She is fascinated by the remnants of ancient cultures not yet transformed by western consumerism. “My passion is not just about Indians... In fact, I’m trying to discover how other less materialistic-minded people live in this world,” Rivin says. After a moment of reflection she adds, “when people come to the gallery, it’s important that they understand that everything they see is a work of art.”

Galerie Urubamba, daily 2-7pm, closed Sun/Mon, 4, rue de la Bûcherie, 5e, tel:, M° St-Michel

Headress, Teton Lakota, Dakota, 1900, Thaw Collection
© John Bigelow Taylor, courtesy Fenimore art collection
Roberta Rivin
© W.A Dudley