Santa Fe was founded as La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís (the Royal Town of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi), but the Tewa have another name for it: O’gah’poh geh Owingeh (White Shell Water Place).
The name is descriptive, yet it communicates an Indigenous idea of the importance of place. La Villa Real de la Santa Fe’s full name commemorates a saint. But O’gah’poh geh Owingeh names it for what’s there: a place that offers up its gifts from the Earth, whether they naturally occur at White Shell Water Place or through trade. The Navajo called it Yootó, a combination of the words for beads and water place.
But one gift is central to the pottery traditions of the region: the earth itself. And it’s such a prominent art form in the Indigenous Southwest, its presence on the landscape is fundamental to Native expression. It’s in the shared familial and community history of jeweler Monica Silva Lovato (San Felipe, Kewa/Santo Domingo). It’s in the landscape of her dreams.
One night, Silva Lovato dreamt of making pottery under the instruction of an elder she didn’t recognize. Captivated by the design of the pot she was making, she tried to recreate it in waking life. But when she was asked to select an object from the Vilcek Foundation’s Native pottery collection (21 E. 70th St., New York, New York, 212-472-2500, vilcek.org) for the groundbreaking exhibition Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery, what she found astounded her.
Examining collection items from photographs at the School for Advanced Research’s Indian Arts Research Center (660 Garcia St., 505-954-7200, sarweb.org), co-sponsor of the exhibit with the Vilcek Foundation, she saw her dream design staring up at her.
“I said, ‘That one, that’s my design,’” Silva Lovato wrote in the forthcoming exhibit catalogue, Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery (Merrell Publishers, 288 pages, Sept. 2, 2022). “The picture made my choice for me. I turned the photo over and saw a handwritten annotation: ‘Attributed to Monica Silva by Robert Tenorio.’ Monica Silva, my great-grandmother. That was the moment my dream made sense to me.”
The level of personal connections and Indigenous cultural knowledge are the driving force behind Grounded in Clay, which is on view at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture (through May 29, 2023).
It isn’t the first community curated exhibition to grace a museum gallery, but it does reflect the implementation of the IARC’s co-created Guidelines for Collaboration, a resource for museums and Indigenous communities (which have a historically fraught relationship) working together on collaborative projects. The guidelines were first published in 2017, and a second version followed in 2019.
“Each individual was responsible for picking their own pieces, so they’re very invested in the ones that they chose,” says IARC Director Elysia Poon. “They came together and, through all of their stories, tried to determine the common threads. That sort of determined the themes of the exhibit.”
The exhibition draws from the Vilcek Foundation’s collection of 45 historic pots and SAR’s collection of more than 12,000 pottery pieces. More than 60 representatives from 21 tribal communities (an informal group dubbed the Pueblo Pottery Collective), including all 19 New Mexico Pueblos along the Río Grande, selected more than 100 objects for the exhibit, sharing their knowledge from the standpoint of aesthetics, the transmission of cultural knowledge over generations, and their personal narratives. The representatives were chosen through SAR’s familiarity with them from cultural events, markets, and through previous collaborative projects and artist residencies completed at SAR. It grew organically, Poon says, as members of the fledgling collection made further recommendations to SAR. The objects were chosen from Vilcek collection photos and on site at the Vilcek Foundation and at SAR.
In New York, for example, Brian Vallo (Acoma) connected in person with an Acoma storage jar from circa 1880.
“On ancestral lands of the Lenape, now Manhattan, I was blessed with the opportunity to hold and reconnect with this beautiful item of my ancestry,” Vallo wrote in the exhibition catalogue. “Its stately character and design mesmerized and grounded me. Having the privilege of holding the jar, connecting with its form and construction, I spoke to it in my Acoma language: I introduced myself, shared words of admiration, and gave thanks for the opportunity to meet again.”
The Indian Arts Research Center is at the forefront of the national push to develop institutional guidelines for culturally sensitive materials and Indigenous communities.
The program started under Cynthia Chavez Lamar, who was the director of the Indian Arts Research Center from 2007 to 2014 and is now the director of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps less by coincidence than by design, Grounded in Clay opened at MIAC just weeks after the reopening of the museum’s core exhibit, Here, Now and Always, another community-based curation project.
“Here, Now and Always, especially in its initial iteration, was one of the early exhibits that really called for community voice,” Poon says. “The new installation follows that. The Guidelines for Collaboration didn’t just come out of SAR. It’s really an accumulation of many years of work by many institutions, including the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. The guidelines synthesize all that work into a manageable document.”
Grounded in Clay is a traveling exhibition, and its next stop is among the nation’s premier art institutions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Ave., New York, New York, 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org).
“It’s really exciting to have such a large show traveling to these major fine art institutions, with so many brilliant voices attached to the exhibit,” Poon says. “It’s such a blessing and a privilege for SAR to be able to help facilitate that.”
In New York, the exhibit will be divided into two venues: the Met and the Vilcek Foundation, where it opens on July 13, 2023 (through June 4, 2024). It will then travel to the The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and remain on view from Oct. 27, 2024, to Jan. 19, 2025, before heading to the Saint Louis Art Museum from March 9, 2025, to June 1, 2025.
“The Vilcek Foundation was looking for a partner to produce a pottery exhibit, and we happened to be approaching our 100th anniversary,” Poon says. “So it seemed like a very likely partnership. We could have produced a show with just our pieces, but we wanted to give community members the opportunity to bring some of these pieces home, even if just for a little bit, and for family and community to see those pieces, which have been residing in New York.”
And the stories behind the pots, why they were selected, and what they represent will go out to a much wider audience.
“It’s been amazing to see the stories about some of the pieces come to light,” Poon says. “For example, if you look at the selection by Max Early (Laguna), it’s something he’s been tracking all over the place — different museums, different locations — and when we began this project, he finally had the opportunity to bring this piece and be close to this piece.”
Early selected a Laguna/Acoma dough bowl from circa 1830-1850.
“I have crossed paths with the dough bowl on four occasions,” he writes in the exhibition catalogue. “In the early 1990s, I often visited the bowl at a gallery in Santa Fe. It sold, changed owner, and was up for sale at another gallery, where I spotted it again. After it sold, I often wondered where it went. Then, in 2006, I walked into the Denver Public Library, and by chance I found my beloved treasure on display.”
Fifteen years later, Early, who was fascinated by the boldness and simplicity of the design, spotted the same bowl in the Vilcek Foundation’s catalogue.
“My eyes widened as I sensed the bowl calling out to me,” he writes, adding later in his essay: ”It felt as if I had found a long-lost relative residing in New York, and we were reacquainted. I whispered a greeting in my Keres language and asked the spirit of the bowl to tell me more about itself. To the Pueblo people, their pottery vessels have lives as individual beings of creation.”
And it’s with that view in mind that Pasatiempo presents a selection of objects from the exhibition, not as objects of clay, merely, but as beings of spirit and soul.