Nelson-Atkins exhibit fuses American Indian culture with New York found objects

Photo courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

An exhibit opening Saturday at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art mixes American Indian culture with New York City’s lower east side.

Indian artist Brad Kahlhamer’s exhibit called “Bowery Nation” features 100 katsina-like dolls and 22 birds made from feathers, the artist’s hair, bone, metal, rubber, paint, wood, wire and more – materials gathered in Kahlhamer’s neighborhood on the Bowery.

Identity is a part of the work by an Indian artist raised far from Indians.

“He was adopted as an infant and grew up in a family of German-American heritage in Wisconsin,” said Jan Schall, Sanders Sosland curator of Modern & Contemporary Art.

Mix that with his adult life in New York’s art world and you get work “firmly grounded in existential angst,” the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum reported of the exhibit that ended last month at that museum in Connecticut.

“Kahlhamer’s homesickness is as much American as American Indian, reflecting the restlessness (and rootlessness) that has characterized much of American identity,” that museum said.

The Nelson press release notes that traditional katsinas are supernatural beings given reality in ceremonial dances. The dolls are used to teach children about those beliefs.

The Bowery Nation represents what the artist calls his “third place,” Schall said, a “personal fusion of his identities and mythologies.”

The exhibit comes together on a structure made of things like an old painting table, saw horses and plywood. It brings to mind a powwow parade float, which is often a converted hay wagon or flatbed truck that carries dancers in colorful costumes.