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"Spirits of the Water: Native Art Collected on Expeditions to Alaska and British Columbia, 1774-1910"
2000-05-05 until 2000-08-13
Menil Collection
Houston, TX, USA United States of America

he Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, some 1500 miles of present-day British Columbia and Alaska—including the Kwakwaka’waku (Kwakiutl), Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), and Tlingit—comprise an elaborate weave of social and religious traditions and superlative artistic skills, each cultural entity developed within a fishing and gathering economy. This legacy is the subject of the exhibition’s only U.S. venue.

Produced by cultures dating back 2,000 years, the various objects in the exhibition—masks, helmets and clubs, rattles and fishhooks, bowls and boxes, blankets and combs—clearly are works of extraordinary power and beauty. Their aesthetic merits, however, suggest a mere subtext to their importance as icons of cultural identity and vitality. Numbering approximately 150 and drawn from the collections of the Museo de America in Madrid, The Menil’s own holdings, and from other museums and private collectors around the world, these treasures were acquired through exploratory and trade expeditions to the Northwest Coast.

Beginning in the 18th century, these journeys, undertaken by Spain, Great Britain, Russia, the United States, and Canada, yielded a wealth of geographical and anthropological knowledge, as well as collections of exceptional works of art and ceremonial pieces, part of the prodigious output of the region's woodworkers, weavers, and other craftsmen. Among the most famous explorers were Alejandro Malaspina, I. G. Voznesenskii, and Captain James Cook. Revisiting these major historical explorations, Spirits of the Water demonstrates how the art of the various cultures embraces the realms of the spiritual and the practical, the ceremonial and the utilitarian.

The exhibition has been organized by the Foundation la Caixa, Barcelona.


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