'Weavers of the Earth: Native American Baskets'
At Memphis Pink Palace Museum, 3050 Central, through May 12. Call 901-320-6320, or visit memphismuseums.org.
"Weavers of the Earth: Native American Baskets," on display through May 12 at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, is an immensely calming exhibition.
The lights are dim, soothing music plays, and on display are 120 examples of 19th and 20th century handcrafted baskets in myriad sizes and shapes and patterns. What exactly makes this show feel equally profound and tranquil rests in its implications of age — a few of the baskets go back to the 1860s and 1880s; the sense that these objects, both utilitarian and symbolic, were such an integral part of the culture of the people who created them; and the fact that they were passed down as valuable goods from generation to generation.
The baskets form a collection owned by Elizabeth Murrah, a partner in Blair-Murrah Exhibitions, based in Sibley, Mo. The exhibition is accompanied by 32 photogravure images by Edward Curtis (1868-1852), the celebrated and controversial ethnologist and photographer who chronicled Native American life from the late 1890s into the early 20th century.
The images on display at the Pink Palace all involve basket weaving. Also informative are drawings by University of Memphis art student Corie Walker of many of the plants that Native Americans used in basketweaving.
In ancient cultures, basketry, which requires dexterity and patience and a ready supply of botanical weaving material, preceded pottery, which required technical knowledge about the process of firing clay. Many of the baskets in "Weavers of the Earth" conform to the practices and rituals of everyday life. There are vessels for gathering, eating and storing food and other material; there are baskets that served ceremonial purposes, especially in weddings.
Above all, there is a quality of esthetic design and play in many of the baskets that testifies to an innate concern with use and beauty inextricable from each other, though what standards of beauty apply is difficult to ascertain. To a woman weaving a basket in 1860 or 1900 — and basket makers in Native American cultures were overwhelmingly women — weaving in an intricate pattern could have been more a matter of tradition and habit than impelled by any notion of beauty.
What seems like a simple basket intended for humble use, say for storing acorns or beads, takes on, in our contemporary sensibility, wit and beauty, showing evidence not only of the skills of a sure hand but also of a whimsical creative urge.
Of the great geographical or ethnographic divisions of Native American culture — Arctic, Sub-Arctic, Northwest Coast, California, Plateau, Great Basin, Southwest, Plains, Northeast and Southeast — every area is represented in "Weavers of the Earth" except for the Plains. It would take much examination and perhaps much training to be able to recognize subtle differences in styles and techniques among the many peoples represented here, so the best approach for visitors is probably to let themselves go and enjoy each object for its own decorative principles, individuality and anonymous sense of history.