Kim Spence stands quietly in front of a demure, dark blue watercolor at the entrance of the Speed Museum’s third floor; she’s completely calm amid the flurry of pre-exhibition activity. All around her, staff are framing paintings, placing bronze castings behind glass — and hanging a massive eagle feather headdress for display.
For the last four years, Spence — the museum’s curator of prints, drawings and photographs — has been preparing for this exhibition, “Picturing American Indian Cultures: The Art of Kentucky’s Frederick Weygold,” with the help of Christian Feest, an internationally renowned specialist on Native American art and culture.
Spence gestures to the painting: “It’s this wonderful blue and natural colored shirt against a dark blue background,” Spence says. “And I think this is the perfect example of what makes this exhibition special, because it shows the two elements coming together of what makes Weygold an interesting person.”
She traces her finger lightly over some of the details of the painted shirt — the navy circles that represent bullet holes across the chest, the delicate fringe — before Feest, a man with a thick German accent and a shock of white hair, interjects.
“In the lower part of the shirt, these annotations here really indicate his interviews with his Lakota informers in Philadelphia,” Feest says. “Right here, this phrase: Líla yuwákȟaŋyaŋ!” Very sacred, yeah?”
Born in Missouri, Frederick Weygold was an artist and ethnographer who settled in Louisville in 1908. While living in Germany — perhaps influenced by the Wild West shows that were popular at the time — he became fascinated with American Indians, their language and culture.
In his own studies, he was as dedicated to capturing the aesthetics of Native objects as he was to recording their meanings, often in the Lakota language.
In 1909, Weygold traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, acquiring artifacts for the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg, Germany, and documenting in photographs Native American life and culture. Subsequently, he served as an advisor to museum directors all over Europe for their Native American collections.
“Over time, Weygold built a personal collection of Native American artifacts that he later donated to the Speed,” Spence says. “These artifacts form the core of the museum’s Native American collection.”
Feest says for a long time, Native American artifacts were far more popular in Europe — where Weygold did much of his work — than in the United States.
“There is the idea that Indians as figures of the imagination, rather than real-life people,” Feest says. “It had become very important for constructing a European identity versus the ‘other.’ The Indian had become the archetypal other really in many respects, both in positive and negative aspects.”
According to Spence, this was happening at a time when tribes were also being forced onto reservations, so many Europeans felt they were watching from afar as a culture was changing — or dying.
“It was the ‘end of the trail,’” he says, referencing James Earle Fraser’s sculpture of the same name.
Feest says the distrust of Native culture may have played into why Weygold has been forgotten as a scholar and artist in Louisville — something both Feest and Spence hope to change.
“This exhibition strives to renew the memory of an unusual man whom his Lakota friends called ‘One Tongue’ — a man without the proverbial forked tongue of the White Man,’ Feest says.
The Weygold exhibition, in the Speed’s new North Building, will run from Jan. 7 through March 26.