Boise Art Museum Brings Three Indigenous Cultures to Life With New Exhibit

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The implication behind Boise Art Museum's latest exhibit, Origins: Objects of Material Culture, which opened Feb. 23, is that culture is an extension of our working lives and that the first avenues of human creativity are the objects found around us every day. It's a point made eloquently. The fact that the first art may have been a painted jug and the first fashion may have been a beaded tunic isn't just clearly presented: It's exciting.

Origins is a three-part exhibit that draws from Native American, Papuan (New Guinea) and Malian (Africa) material cultures from the pre-European contact period until the present day. To these indigenous peoples, many of the artifacts on display were practically and religiously significant, but these items' adornment bespeaks a secondary value as objets d'art.

Organized only by the cultures that produced them, the items illustrate these cultures' mastery of crafts, decoration and metalwork. To provide visitors with more information, Virtual Curator kiosks in each of the exhibit's three rooms give the museum's more tactile patrons the ability to gather information about individual pieces in the collection.

The Native American portion of the exhibit has the greatest depth, with modern paintings and other visual art on display beside mid-19th century ceremonial clothing and wool blankets. Within feet of a huge tapestry with satin trim (some of it hanging loose to represent the havoc wrought on native peoples by Europeans), titled Ledger: Tread Lightly, is an early 20th century cradle board decorated with blue and red glass beads. Here, the divide between traditional and the contemporary takes on a recognizable character.

Carved canoe prows and elaborate woven fiber costumes caked in colored clay give the Papua, New Guinea, exhibit greater focus. Crude wooden boomerangs, sturdy tools and shell necklaces provide a glimpse into how these people lived, but the historical point of the introduction of Europeans isn't as clear as it is in the Native American exhibit.

Perhaps the most engaging of the display rooms is dedicated to African art. Here, beautiful metalworks and representational ceremonial masks mark the diversity and sophistication of Malian culture. An elaborately carved granary door attests to advanced agricultural practices, and iron and bronze currency items like anklets and necklaces suggest smelting techniques and trade with faraway cultures.

Origins offers a peek at indigenous cultures, but that peek is enough to show how design and aesthetics seep into commonplace objects. That BAM has brought this principle into sometimes shocking relief makes this exhibit worth seeing. Origins runs through Jan. 12, 2014.

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