The FIRST Abstract American Art The Parfleche
It is almost as if there used to be an unspoken, institutional refusal to acknowledge the beauty and validity of Native-American Art. To admit the culture or peoples you are discriminating against (or unfortunately, slaughtering) is capable of creating art which reaches or exceeds the contributions of one's own dominant culture is somehow inconvenient. Thus Indigenous Antique Native American Art has for the most part (in the relatively short history of European culture in the Americas) been traditionally relegated as "artifact" rather then art. Somehow, it is easier to explain away the treatment of a culture if you dismiss or avoid their contributions of an artistic or spiritual nature. This has certainly changed over the last few decades, as splendid and exceptional examples have finally been placed in spotlights before the "correct" people and presented as the art it is rather than storing the objects in the back room of the Natural History Museum.
That there is moral, ethical and often legal baggage in collecting (and owning) Native American art is undeniable. It is a rather splendid irony that some of the most beautiful examples ARE baggage! The Parfleche. Although produced by the thousands by virtually every tribe within reach or trade of Buffalo skin, the word is not recognized by my spell checker. Parfleche, basically French for "against arrows" is applied to hard, durable cases and objects of dried hide as they could do just that. Deflect the tip of an arrow. The Indian backpack, saddle bags or suitcase otherwise known as Parfleche is itself a wonderful functional adaptation, but each tribe also imbued them with colorful patterns which appear similar, but as with all art forms, as one becomes familiar it is easy to discern between motifs and tribes. Collectors of American Indian Art may know about beaded objects, woven objects and pottery...but painting was involved as well! Painted Drums, Shields and Parfleche are, I believe, the best kept secret in American Art.
Among collectors, of which there are not too many, I suppose Plains tribe examples are most common. Other groups, Plateau even Southwestern, produced the Parfleche as well. The technique was the same...stretch it out, stake the ends to let it dry and fold the object like a giant wet burrito into a rectangle. It will stiffen hard as rock. Then decorated with vegetal dye, maybe some urine, (yep...just like Andres Serrano) or pigment with family, tribal or spiritual design. Each roughly two foot long case would hold family items, documents, clothing, even food as it was carried on horses, lashed to packs and hung in tents. Early Native American painted objects are rare, but exceptionally beautiful. The FIRST ABSTRACT ART produced within these shores, they belong not in museums of relics or artifacts, but exhibited as fine art alongside the art of European cultures.
To my knowledge, the Parfleche has never been presented in a major exhibition on the East coast, although they turn up in antique shows and isolated pieces are occasionally seen in folk art gallery shows. Santa Fe galleries and institutions exhibit them more frequently. The National Museum of the American Indian in New York owns splendid pieces but I don't think more than one or two are shown at any given time. They look like Mondrian, but they are much, much older and far less "valuable" though no less important.
The "best" are Buffalo, old and pre-reservation era. Later examples were produced for trade (and tourist trade) from cowhide. Reproductions, recent examples and even some made to deceive exist. Smaller items such as medicine bags were also produced, these often were stitched rather than lashed and have bayeta trade cloth "selvedge" sewn on the edges with sinew. Authentic matched pairs are particularly desirable and though "price is in the presentation" it is not to difficult to find splendid pieces on the market.
The major work and exhibition of Parfleche remains the 1994 book by Gaylord Torrence. The American Indian Parfleche: A tradition of Abstract Painting broke ground when it was published, and remains one of the most beautiful books on art ever produced.