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TO JAN. 19, 2003
In the 1830s, lawyer-cum-painter George Catlin trekked out on the heels of Lewis and Clark, canoeing hundreds of miles along the Missouri River as he sought to document the “manners and customs” of the American tribes of the Great Plains. A man with a passion for Indian culture, Catlin saw his work as a means of preserving, in his words, “their primitive looks and customs.” His portraits (La-doo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull, a Grand Pawnee Warrior, is pictured) would eventually serve as our primary visual record of several North American tribes and become instrumental in deconstructing stereotypes back home. As part of its “George Catlin and His Indian Gallery” exhibition, the Smithsonian has displayed a nearly complete collection of the artist’s first “Indian Gallery” alongside items Catlin collected during his travels. The exhibition features a life-size tepee, surrounded on four walls by hundreds of chronologically arranged paintings. A “surround video” experience simulates Catlin’s journey on the Missouri, replete with the sights and sounds of prairie fires and thundering herds of buffalo. The artwork on the first floor is a tribute to the enormous diversity of the North American tribes: Seeking to accentuate central elements of each tribe’s identity, Catlin documented Plains Indians hunting for buffalo, a Mandan “O-kee-pa” ceremony, and a fierce game of lacrosse—aka “little brother of war”—between members of the Choctaw. Despite their varied subjects, all the paintings and artifacts collected here reflect on the uprooting of a culture that fell victim to the merciless nature of western expansion. Catlin’s works are on view from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily (except Wednesday, Dec. 25), to Sunday, Jan. 19, 2003, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, 17th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Free. (202) 357-2700. (P.J. Martinez)