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Art of the Osage

March 12 - August 8, 2004


Art of the Osage, organized by the Saint Louis Art Museum, is the first major exhibition to explore the art and culture of the American Indian people known as the Osage. The exhibition also brings focus to the vibrant story of the Osage, whose history traces to the great Mississippian culture of North America. From the 17th to the 19th century, the Osage inhabited the Upper Louisiana Territory amid the Mississippi, Missouri, Osage, and Red Rivers, where their formidable presence was significant in the country's westward expansion. (right: Hand Effigy Pipe Bowl, catlinite, approx. 3 x 4 inches, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution)

The Saint Louis Art Museum presents Art of the Osage in a year celebrating the bicentennials of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition as well as the centennial of the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The exhibition opens in the midst of the Three Flags Festival commemorating the formal transfer of the Louisiana Territory, which occurred in St. Louis on March 9-10, 1804. Representing the Osage people at the event, Principal Chief of the Osage Nation James Roan Gray will mark the seminal role of the Osage in the history of the United States.

The refined artistic tradition of the Osage reflects the sense of continuity and purpose that has long united the Osage people in the values of spirituality and community. Rich in meaning and complex in its commitment to tradition and utility, Osage art is infused with aesthetic vigor bound to exquisite simplicity.

Unlike nomadic tribes, the Osage lived in permanent homes, cultivating the bounty of the prairies, woodlands, and plains. For more than a century before the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Osage controlled nearly half of the region's fur trade. The dominance of the Osage in this land of rivers, fiercely protecting its abundant natural resources, was an important factor in the founding of St. Louis in 1764. So significant was their influence that Meriwether Lewis arranged for several Osage chiefs to travel to Washington in 1804 for an extended visit with President Thomas Jefferson. The Osage homeland is now centered in the rich oil lands of Oklahoma, where the last Osage reservation was established in 1872. There the Osage continue to preserve the vitality of their artistic and cultural traditions, while prospering in the business and political arena of contemporary America.

The "purposeful beauty" characteristic of the Osage aesthetic is evident in the more than 100 objects featured in the exhibition. The works of art come from public and private collections in the United States and Europe and were selected according to the highest aesthetic standards with the guidance and support of the Osage community. Interpretive and contextual materials were developed in collaboration with active Osage historians and artists. With objects spanning 250 years, the exhibition encompasses two major periods of Osage art: the Old Era (1750-1900) and the New Era (1900 to the present). (left: War Mothers Blanket, cloth and glass beads, 77 3/4 x 39 inches, Osage Tribal Museum)

Works of art from the Old Era include objects created for child rearing, hunting, domestic industry, and warfare. Highlighting the domestic arts and child rearing are objects such as handcarved cradle boards decorated with brass bells and finger-woven straps, as well as dolls dressed in high Osage fashion. The hunting arts are exemplified by dramatic split-horn headdresses with trailing horse hair and feathers. A group of boldly painted shields, riding quirts, and war clubs illustrates the level of artistry dedicated to the accoutrements of warfare. A particularly rare riding quirt depicting a warrior with a bow and spear shows how quickly Osage artists adopted the pictorial style of artists such as the notable Karl Bodmer, who collected the quirt in 1834.

The New Era is represented through the defining activities of the modern Osage, including the In 'Lon Schka dances, weddings, the War Mother's Society, and the Native American Church. The arts of the New Era reveal the strength of tribal identity in brilliantly colored and patterned sashes, stunning beaded vests, feast bags, and silver ornaments, all made for the In 'Lon Schka dances. Plumed hats, ornate military dress, and refined horse regalia represent the Osage wedding arts. (right: Blanket, early 20th century, wool and silk, 59 x 72 x 7 3/4 inches, Denver Art Museum Collection, Native Arts Acquisition Funds, 1953.131 © Photo by Denver Art Museum)

A particularly wonderful Osage wedding coat demonstrates how Osage artists adapted western apparel using ribbon applique, horse hair, and trade cloth to create elegant and masterful works within the Osage aesthetic tradition. The War Mother's Society is represented by a group of blankets with images of planes, tanks, and flags that are woven, beaded, and sequined. The importance of the native American Church is illustrated with fine examples of sacred staffs, peyote fans, and rattles.

A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, published by the Saint Louis Art Museum and the University of Washington Press, includes rare black-and-white historical photographs dating from the 1870s as well as excerpts from recorded interviews with members of the Osage Nation.

Catalogue contributors include exhibition curator John Nunley, the Morton D. May Curator of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Saint Louis Art Museum; Garrick Bailey, professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa; Daniel Swan, senior curator of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa; and Sean StandingBear, Osage oral historian and artist. Cultural reviewers for the catalogue are Kathryn Red Corn, director of the Osage Tribal Museum, and Leonard Maker, distinguished Osage elder.

The project has been strongly supported by Principal Chief of the Osage Nation James Roan Gray and former Principal Chief Charles Tillman, Jr. (left: Moccasins, c. 1950, hide and glass beads, approx. 4 x 10 x 10 inches, Private Collection)


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