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In an article (The Inca, Maya, and — Cahokian?, December 31, 2004) in the Christian Science Monitor, Amanda Paulson reviews what sounds like a fascinating exhibit of early American art. Not Mesoamerica, not South America, but North America. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South, at the Art Institute of Chicago until January 30, in the words of the museum's Web site, "assembles some 300 masterpieces of stone, ceramic, wood, shell, and copper created between 2000 B.C. and A.D. 1600 and presents them in the context of large-scale plans and reconstruction drawings of major archaeological sites." As Ms. Paulson puts it,

despite a fair amount of ethnographic information and historical context, the emphasis here is on aesthetics — and the curators are clear that the objects displayed are art, not artifacts. It's the artistic quality of the Hopewell's carved animal pipes, or the stunning Moundville pots, more than their function, that interests them. "We're trying to create a fresh approach to the interpretation of these objects," says Richard Townsend, curator of African and Amerindian art. "I hope at the most basic level that visitors will carry away with them an emotional imprint — that they will be affected by the beautiful and powerful works of art shown here."
There are, in particular, a number of art objects made by the Hopewell people, who lived in the Ohio River Valley and flourished around the year 1000, and pieces from Cahokia, "an ancient city just outside St. Louis that existed from about AD 900 to 1200." The article has a picture of a stunning piece of sheet mica, sculpted into the shape of an elegant, long-fingered hand, found at a Hopewell site in Ohio and dated between AD 1 and 400. (The exhibit Web site has images of twenty selected works.) We are talking about not only the effigy mounds (like the most famous one, the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio) but large cities on the plains.
As interesting as Cahokia's intricate copper plates and engraved whelk shells is the information about the city itself. A large mural on the wall imagines what it once looked like: a city of 15,000 to 20,000 people that contained large earthen pyramids, scattered thatched houses, and a spiked wooden wall that surrounded the central palisade. The lack of general awareness of such civilizations may be one reason why those associated with the exhibition sometimes display an almost missionary zeal when talking about the art's importance.

"It's about time that native Americans and nonnative citizens realize that in the eastern woodlands of the United States a great civilization arose, and the art it produced is equal to the art of societies at a similar level of development anywhere in the world, at any time and place," says Kent Reilly, a professor of anthropology at Texas State University who helped conceptualize the exhibit.
Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South will be at the Art Institute of Chicago until January 30. It will then travel to the St. Louis Art Museum, from March 4 to May 30, and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, from late July to late September. I will catch it when it comes to Washington and get back to you then.

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