Native American voices and artistry are at the heart of a new traveling exhibit of pottery from the Pueblo Indian region of the American Southwest, as major art institutions increasingly turn to tribal communities to display ancestral art and artifacts.
In all, 60 Native American artists, museum professionals, storytellers and political leaders collaborated to curate the exhibition.
Each picked some of their favorite pieces from institutional collections in New Mexico and New York that did not always take Indigenous perspectives into account. Personal statements and sometimes poetry accompany the clay pottery.
Among the many curators, Tara Gatewood — a broadcaster and familiar voice throughout Indian Country from the daily talk radio show “Native American Calling” — picked out an ancestral jar decorated with curling arrows that was created about 1,000 years ago.
For the exhibit, Gatewood posed some heartfelt questions to the pot’s unnamed creator.
“Is your blood mine?” she said. “Where else beyond the surface of this vessel do your fingerprints appear on the blueprint of my own life?”
The exhibit “Grounded in Clay” debuted July 31 at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. It will travel next year to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, before further stops at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Saint Louis Art Museum.
The bulk of the exhibit’s 110 or so ceramic objects are on loan from the Indian Arts Research Center—once reserved for visiting scholars and archaeologists—on the campus of the century-old School of Advanced Research, in the middle of an affluent Santa Fe neighborhood of stucco houses.
Work has been ongoing at the center for more than a decade to change how Indigenous art and artefacts are cared for, displayed and interpreted – under the guidance and collaboration of 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.
Curators on “Grounded in Clay” come from the 19 Native American communities in New Mexico, the West Texas community of Ysleta del Sur and the Hopi tribe in Arizona.
They include a host of accomplished potters, jewelers, bead makers, fashion designers and museum professionals—among them sculptor Cliff Fragua, who created the 1680 likeness of Pueblo rebel leader Po’pay that stands in National Statutory Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Elysia Poon, who led the curation process over more than two years, took the museum gallery up to speed during the final touches before the 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 up here, or in that panel. It is in poetry form, others are in prose, others are a little more abstract in how they write. Some really reflect on the pot itself…or hazy memories of growing up around ceramics, how this pot inspires memory.”
Pueblo pottery traditions rely on coiling clay into a variety of shapes and sizes—without a spinning potter’s wheel. Pots, plates or figurines are often fired close to the ground in improvised outdoor kilns.
Brian Vallo, a consultant for metropolitan museums and governor of Acoma Pueblo from 2019-21, selected two pieces for the new traveling exhibit — both with unmistakable ties to Acoma, known for its mesa-top “sky city” and hundreds of contemporary artists and artisans.
He found them in the New York-based Vilcek Foundation, a participant in the travel show.
He says something beautiful and refreshing awaits experienced museum-goers and curious tourists.
“There are native voices, and there are even the elements chosen by natives themselves, not the institutions,” Vallo said. “They will appreciate that these cultures survived and flourished and the creative spirit of our people is very much alive.”