60 curators, 1 show: Native Americans choose favorite pottery


SANTA FE, NM (TUSEN) — Native American voices and artistry are at the heart of a new traveling exhibition of clay pottery from the Pueblo Indian region of the American Southwest as major art institutions increasingly defer to tribal communities for exhibits of ancestral art and artifacts.

A total of 60 Native American artists, museum professionals, storytellers and political leaders worked together to curate the exhibition.

Each chose a few of their favorite pieces from institutional collections in New Mexico and New York that didn’t always defer to native perspectives. Personal statements and sometimes poetry accompany the clay ceramics.

Among the many curators, Tara Gatewood — an announcer and well-known voice throughout Indian Country of the daily talk show “Native American Calling” — chose an ancestral pot decorated with curly arrows that was created about 1,000 years ago.

Before the exhibition, Gatewood asked the unnamed maker of the pot a few heartfelt questions.

“Is your blood mine?” she said. “Where else but the surface of this ship do your fingerprints appear on the blueprint of my own life?”

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The “Grounded in Clay” exhibit debuted July 31 at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. It will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York next year, for additional stops at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Most of the exhibit’s roughly 110 ceramic pieces are borrowed from the Indian Arts Research Center—once reserved for visiting scholars and archaeologists—on the campus of the century-old School of Advanced Research, amid an affluent Santa Fe neighborhood of stucco. houses.

Efforts have been underway at the center for more than a decade to change the way Indigenous art and artifacts are cared for, displayed and interpreted – under guidance and in collaboration with Indigenous communities.

The changes were initiated under Cynthia Chavez Lamar – recently appointed director of the Washington-based National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. The effort also created a set of collaborative guidelines that can help Native American communities everywhere communicate and build trust with museums.

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Curators on “Grounded in Clay” come from the 19 Native American communities of New Mexico, the West Texas community of Ysleta del Sur, and the Hopi tribe of Arizona.

They include an array of accomplished potters, jewelers, bead makers, fashion designers, and museum professionals — including sculptor Cliff Fragua, who created the effigy of 1680s pueblo insurrectionist leader Po’pay that stands in the National Statutory Hall in the US Capitol.

Elysia Poon, who led the curating process over the course of more than two years, walked through the museum gallery during the final touches to the pre-opening opening.

“We’re trying to make sure everyone’s voice is represented in some way,” said Poon, director of the Indian Arts Research Center. “It’s either in the label, or the quote above, or in that panel. It is in poetic form, others are in prose, others are a bit more abstract in their writing. Some really reflect on the pot itself…or vague memories of growing up around pottery, how this pot inspires memory.”

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Pueblo pottery traditions are based on rolling up strands of clay in a range of shapes and sizes – without a spinning pottery wheel. Pots, plates or figurines are often baked close to the ground in makeshift outdoor ovens.

Brian Vallo, advisor to metropolitan museums and governor of Acoma Pueblo from 2019-21, chose two pieces for the new traveling exhibit — both with undeniable ties to Acoma, known for its mesa-top “sky city” and hundreds of contemporary artists and craftsmen.

He found them at the New York-based Vilcek Foundation, a participant in the traveling show.

He says something beautiful and refreshing awaits experienced museum visitors and curious tourists.

“It’s indigenous voices, and it’s even the items selected by indigenous people themselves, not the institutions,” Vallo said. “They will appreciate that these cultures have survived and thrived, and the creative spirit of our people is alive and kicking.”


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