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January 2, 2002

Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life

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From striking beaded clothing to souvenir beaded pincushions, the artistic, cultural, economic and political significance of beadwork in the lives of Iroquois people is explored in a new exhibition, titled “Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life.”

The exhibit opens December 9, 2001 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center (One Bowling Green) in lower Manhattan. Admission is free.

Across Borders” traces the story of Iroquois beadwork from pre-European contact to the present.

More than 300 examples of stunning beadwork, including moccasins, picture frames, and bags, will be on display to illustrate how placing thousands of tiny glass beads on fabric is ultimately linked to the identity and survival of Iroquois people.

Across Borders” traces the story of Iroquois beadwork from pre-European contact to the present.

“This exhibition tells the fascinating story of how Native peoples have adapted traditional tribal aesthetics to new products that were marketed to a diverse network of consumers,” said W. Richard West, the director of the National Museum of the American Indian.

“‘Across Borders’ also symbolizes how many Native cultures have remained vibrant by adapting deftly to surrounding influences while, at the same time, staying true to the spirit of their communities.”

Through thematic sections, the exhibition tells the stories of the Iroquois universe, the development of beadwork, the interaction of Iroquois and Victorian aesthetics, the entrepreneurial skills of the Iroquois, and how contemporary Iroquois beadworkers have reinvented the language of beadwork.

The Iroquois people live on territories that border New York State, Quebec and Ontario.

During the 19th century, Iroquois artists developed a remarkable new style of beadwork—“tourist art”—that was a blend of traditional Iroquois designs with popular Victorian fashions. Vibrantly colored beadwork spilled across the fabric of souvenir pincushions, picture frames and wallpockets designed to appeal to throngs of eager tourists visiting popular resorts such as Niagara Falls and Saratoga.

Spanning the turn of the century, the sale of souvenir art was the cornerstone of new Iroquois economies.

Today, as always, Iroquois people continue to maintain their strong link to an artistic tradition that resonates with their beliefs, sense of identity and community values.

Women create the elaborately beaded garments worn at political events and also make beaded Christmas decorations.

On the international scene, contemporary Iroquois artists are creating innovative works that, while inspired by beadwork, move across conceptual boundaries and challenge viewers to reflect on the events that have shaped the history of Native and non-Native relations.

In sum, “Across Borders” takes visitors on a trip that crosses many borders—from the past to the future, from art to craft, from cosmology to everyday events, and most importantly, from isolation to a new shared space where both Native and non-Native people will better understand their complex and interwoven history.

Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life” is a traveling exhibition organized by the McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in partnership with the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University, Lewiston, N.Y., with the participation of the Kanien’kehaka Raotitiohkwa Cultural Center, Kahnawake, Quebec; the Tuscarora community of western New York state; and the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario.

AUTHOR: Smithsonian Institute Press Release

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