60 curators, 1 exhibition: Native Americans choose their favorite pottery

Native American voices and art are the focus of a new traveling exhibit of clay pottery from the Pueblo Indian region of the American Southwest, as major art institutions increasingly rely on tribal communities for exhibits of ancestral art and artifacts.

In all, 60 Native American artists, museum professionals, storytellers and political leaders collaborated to organize the exhibition.

Each chose some of their favorite pieces from institutional collections in New Mexico and New York that did not always defer to Indigenous perspectives. Personal statements and sometimes poetry accompany clay ceramics.

Of the many curators, Tara Gatewood – a broadcaster and familiar voice across Indian country of the daily radio program “Native American Calling” – chose an ancestral pot decorated with curling arrows that was created about 1000 years.

For the exhibit, Gatewood asked some candid questions of the anonymous jar creator.

“Is your blood mine?” she says. “Where else beyond the surface of this ship do your fingerprints appear on the map of my own life?

The “Grounded in Clay” exhibition opened July 31 at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. It travels next year to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, before additional stops at the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston and at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

The bulk of the exhibition’s approximately 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, located in the middle of an affluent neighborhood of Santa Fe with stucco houses.

Efforts have been underway at the center for over a decade to change the way Indigenous art and artifacts are cared for, displayed and interpreted – under the direction and collaboration of Indigenous communities.

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

Grounded in Clay curators are drawn 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, beadmakers, fashion designers and museum professionals – among them sculptor Cliff Fragua, who created the image of the leader of the Pueblo revolt of 1680, Po ‘pay, which is in the National Statutory Hall of the United States Capitol.

Elysia Poon, who guided the curatorial process for more than two years, paced the museum gallery during final touches before opening.

“We try 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 in the quote here, or in this panel. It is in the form of poetry, others are in prose, others are a bit more abstract in the way they are written. Some really reflect on the pot itself…or hazy memories of growing up around pottery, how that pot inspires memory.”

Pueblo pottery traditions rely on winding strands of clay into an array of shapes and sizes – without a spinning pottery wheel. Pots, plates or figurines are often fired close to the ground in improvised outdoor kilns.

Brian Vallo, Metropolitan Museums Consultant and Governor of Acoma Pueblo from 2019-21, chose two pieces for the new traveling exhibit – both with unmistakable ties to Acoma, known for its “sky city” atop the mesa and hundreds of contemporary artists and artisans.

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

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

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

Nohemi M. Moore