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Sacred Symbols:  Four Thousand Years of Ancient American Art October 26, 2003 - January 11, 2004

Feature Article


This article is reprinted from Arts Magazine, the bimonthly publication of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Four Thousand Years of American Art
An unprecedented exhibition introduces the world to the arts of ancient America.

By Molly Hennen

OPENING IN MINNEAPOLIS after a very successful tour of France, Sacred Symbols: Four Thousand Years of Ancient American Art highlights the rich history of Native American cultures and showcases many masterpieces from The Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ permanent collection. Conceived within the FRAME (French Regional American Museums Exchange) consortium of French and American museums, it provided an opportunity for the Institute, the organizer and primary lender, and six other American museums to share the wealth of their collections with four museums throughout France. It has been an unprecedented chance to familiarize the people in these regional centers with the art of Native American civilizations, and will serve a similar purpose here, the exhibition’s only U. S. venue.

Many have heard of the Maya, Aztec, and Inca cultures, but far fewer know the masterworks of the Olmec, Colima, or Moche. The cultures of ancient America were complex and varied, and Sacred Symbols features art from a selection of some of the most significant groups.

The overview of cultures is what makes Sacred Symbols unusual and compelling. Showing the civilizations of early America in context with one another allows the visitor to understand the cultural interconnections. Linked by vast networks of trade, the ancient Americans exchanged materials, technology, ideas, and iconography, and it is fascinating to discover these interactions. Even more exciting is the chance to see top objects from The Minneapolis Institute of Arts placed in proximity with pieces of similar quality from other museums for the first time.


The oldest piece in the show is also the most modern looking, and was the generous gift of our former Trustee Chair, Beverly Grossman. This birdstone was carved in about 2500 B.C. by an artist of the Ancient Woodlands culture, living and working in what is now the eastern United States. Despite its age, its sleek abstracted lines are as up-to-date as anything created in the last century. This exquisite small sculpture was both utilitarian and aesthetic. It served as a weight for a spear thrower, to increase the spear’s power and effectiveness, while simultaneously providing decoration, cleverly meeting the need for function and ornamentation in one object.



Image: Woodlands region (United States), Birdstone, c. 2500 B.C., Slate, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Beverly N. Grossman

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