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First Families

Three dynasties of Native American ceramics artists are chronicled in an exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum.

Autumn Borts-Medlock (Santa Clara), Dragonfly Pot, n.d.

Autumn Borts-Medlock (Santa Clara), Dragonfly Pot, n.d., earthenware, 13 x 13 in.

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Some of the most beautiful and distinctive ceramics work in the world today emanates from one particular area in the Southwestern United States. The Native American communities of New Mexico and Arizona known as Pueblos have seen a renaissance of pottery crafts over the past 125 or so years, beginning with imitations of traditional forms and culminating in a flowering of personal creativity.

The expressive range of modern Pueblo pottery is on view now through January 5, 2020, at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif., in an exhibition titled “Pueblo Dynasties: Master Potters from Matriarchs to Contemporaries.” Of the more than 200 vessels being displayed, most are donations to the museum from the late Loren G. Lipson, M.D., a major collector and champion of the genre. The gift significantly strengthened the Crocker’s already impressive collection of Native American ceramics, numbering some 5,000 pieces, which is one of the largest public holdings in the U.S.

The title of the exhibition, which is curated by Crocker director Scott A. Shields, clearly indicates two of its major themes—one, that Pueblo pottery is a family affair, the heritage of “dynasties” that trace their lineage back to founders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and two, that the founders and most of the later practitioners are female. Unlike in many societies, in which the question “Why have there been no great women artists?” remains vexed, in Pueblo communities the artistic greatness of women was never in question.

The term Pueblo, meaning “people” in Spanish, was given by the Conquistadores to the tightly knit urban Native American communities they encountered when marching north from Mexico in the 17th century. Today it refers to a group of small Indian nations whose languages fall into one of two groups, Tewa and Keresan, mainly in Northern New Mexico near Santa Fe, with outliers in northeastern Arizona. In 1680, the Pueblos united to throw out the Spaniards in what came to be called the Pueblo Revolt, and when the oppressors retook control in 1695, many aspects of Pueblo life and culture went underground. Artistic traditions that in many cases date back millennia, to the so-called Anasazi people, the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians, persisted under Spanish and subsequently Anglo rule but had declined by the late 19th century. At that time, the archaeologist and ethnologist Jesse Walter Fewkes was excavating the village of Sikyatki near the Hopi pueblo in Arizona, and in 1895 some of the pottery he found there was shown to a woman named Nampeyo, who was of mixed Hopi and Tewa descent. Nampeyo, who had learned pottery techniques from her mother and grandmother, was inspired to revive the ancient style, and in so doing became the first matriarch of modern Pueblo ceramics.

The Nampeyo family continues its tradition of ceramics art to this day, and it features in the Crocker exhibition as one of three Pueblo pottery dynasties. The other two are the Martinez family of San Ildefonso Pueblo (right outside of Santa Fe) and the Tafoya family of Santa Clara (near the town of Espanõla, N.M.). Each family has a trademark look and techniques, although the more recent members have expanded the repertoire, both technically and creatively. The Nampeyos are known for polychrome work, with a strong emphasis on red-earth and black colors and archaizing motifs based on excavated ancient sherds. Individual interpretation, though, was always a factor. The exhibition features works by the original matriarch as well as her daughters, who assisted her in making pieces after she lost her sight, and by descendants such as Dextra Quotskuyva Nampeyo, who died this year at the age of 91. A large vessel by Dextra on view at the Crocker is intricately patterned with tiny quotations from sherds, tessellated together to convey an almost “allover” effect. The exhibition includes work by contemporary Hopi-Tewa potters not in the Nampeyo lineage who also refer to ancient iconography, such as Rondina Huma, who is inspired directly by Sikyakti objects.

The Martinez family is probably the most famous Pueblo dynasty. That fame is due both to the excellence of its instantly recognizable black-on-black wares and to Alice Marriott’s book María, the Potter of San Ildefonso, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1948 and continuously in print since then. Maria Martinez started making pots around 1910, working with her husband Julian until his death in 1943, and then alone until her own death in 1980. Maria was the first Pueblo potter to sign works, an act which paved the way for a change in attitude in subsequent generations, although it was hardly intended in a rebellious spirit. She once said, “We don’t care about being well known or anything. Pueblo Indian people don’t think about things like that. We all just want to get along in this world and be together.”

Julián’s involvement also set the tone for a future in which pottery was no longer seen as a medium for one gender only. Maria and Julian specialized in black-on-black, which has a glossy, elegant, streamlined quality that meshes well with modernism, although her earliest works—some of which are in the show—were polychrome. Their son Popovi Da, carried on the lineage, along with daughter-in-law Santana Roybal and grandson Tony Da. Great-niece Martha Appleleaf makes pieces using a highly individual “apple-leaf green,” while her son Erik Fender does black-on-black as well as blue-on-black.

The large Tafoya family of Santa Clara Pueblo also has great pottery achievements to its name, over several generations. Matriarch Sara Fina Tafoya started the line, with large, bold storage jars that are usually undecorated. The family’s trademark aesthetic gelled in the work of Sara Fina’s children Christina Naranjo, Camilio Tafoya, and Margaret Tafoya, who created vessels with deeply carved abstract geometric decoration. Sara Fina’s great-great-granddaughter Tammy Garcia is a contemporary-art star whose work goes well beyond the tradition, adding a layer of conceptual art to the classic craftsmanship. One of her works, on view in the exhibition, uses the carving technique to depict Native American symbols from a totally different culture, that of the Pacific Northwest. Personal expression and new iconography are hallmarks of today’s Pueblo pottery. One striking example in the show is a work by a potter not from the three dynasties, Joseph Cerno of Acoma Pueblo. Against a background of traditional geometric forms is a train riding on a railroad track, wrapping around the vessel. One of the first pieces collected by Lipson, it is particularly appropriate for the Crocker, whose founder, E.B. Crocker, helped build the Transcontinental Railroad.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: October 2019

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