Visual Art

Julianna Thibodeaux

Great Lakes Native Quilting

Eiteljorg Museum

Through April 23

'Strawberries and Flowers' by Alice Olsen Williams (Anishnaabe), part of the Eiteljorg Museum's exhibit 'Great Lakes Native Quilting'

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art has brought its audiences to an enlightened place: bringing attention to Native American fine art as dynamic and ever changing, and yet also often speaking to traditions. I've come to appreciate greatly the museum's contemporary art program and its progressive, risk-taking edge, and have watched it grow to become an equal player to the museum's Western art and Native American historical and traditional art.

In this context, following on the heels of its groundbreaking Fellowship for Native American Fine Art and accompanying exhibition, the Eiteljorg's current presentation of the traveling exhibition Great Lakes Native Quilting is a different being entirely. Seemingly suspended in time, the exhibition of 20 traditional and contemporary quilts is telling in its way: placing Native American quilting in its own cultural context. Touted as the first exhibition devoted to North American Indian quilting in the Great Lakes region, the exhibition reveals the unique trajectory of Native American quilts, and yet speaks to the expressive and yet contained quality of quilting in general.

Although Native American quilting originally was adapted from European practices, Native Americans have made it their own - functionally and aesthetically. Quilts continue to be used in most Native communities for functional purposes, including bed and shelter coverings, infant's swing cradles, seating and insulation from the weather. Quilts also play a part in tribal ceremonies and are given as honoring gifts. The star quilt has evolved as a symbol of Native American identity, with many stunning examples in evidence here, including "Thunderbird Star" quilt by Rita Corbiere (Ojibwe), Wekwemikong, Manitoulin Island, Ontario, and the similarly divine "Indian Quilt" by Mrs. Ogahmahgegedo (Odawa), Ahgosatown, Leelanau County, Michigan, in which the central star radiates from the center, surrounded by bold and colorful floral patterns so that the star seems to shimmer.

Organized by Michigan State University Museum with a long list of other supporters - the National Endowment for the Arts, Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and others - the exhibition speaks loudly of institutional support: a good thing, certainly, but one that also suggests a certain safeness. Institutional partners are not known for taking great artistic risks, and this exhibition is not an exception, even if it does provide an important view into a cultural practice.

We're subtly reminded of the dispersal of Native Americans, for instance, with the Eiteljorg's unique contributions to the exhibit - such as the display of pieces from its own collection offered to point out connections to the later development of quilting. An Arapaho pipe bag and a Nez Perce corn husk bag, both from the late 19th century, are colorfully patterned with tribally significant designs, adapted later in quilt designs, giving them continuity with the past.

But not all Native American art is required to be political; in fact, none of it is required to be. But art by its very nature often speaks to cultural and therefore political concerns in the broader sense. This exhibition brings awareness to the importance of maintaining tribal and individual identity for Native Americans, since so much exists to threaten them. And certainly, the traditional arts, even as they evolve, speak a different language than contemporary art conceived outside of functionality. This exhibition should offer an accessible view of a venerable and enduring, and beautiful, artform.

Great Lakes Native Quilting is on view through April 23 at the Eiteljorg, White River State Park, 500 W. Washington St. Call 317-636-WEST or visit for hours and information.


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