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Insights From 2,000 Years of Pueblo Pottery

Atruly creative art exhibition offers the viewer new insights into the work. So when the curators of New Mexico's Museum of Indian Arts and Culture decided to display some of its huge collection of Indian pottery, they underscored the museum's own reason for being. ``From This Earth: Pottery of the Southwest'' demonstrates the relevance of the museum's archaeological and historic collection to living Indians - the continuity of Pueblo Indian pottery over 2,000 years.

The 330 pots on view here in the museum's newly remodeled atrium space are overwhelming in their beauty and variety. Prehistoric, historic, and contemporary pots are shown side by side, and the great achievement of the exhibition lies in its feeling for the fluid interaction of cultures as well as the unmistakable identity of individual cultures.

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Numerous pottery styles and artistic motifs have been invented, re-invented, and shared among the Anasazi (Navajo for ``the old ones'') and their descendants: the Rio Grande (Eastern) Pueblos, Western Pueblos (Zuni and Hopi), and more recently, the Navajo, a non-Pueblo tribe that migrated into the Southwest sometime after AD 1200.

The oldest intact pot in the show dates back to about AD 400. Hundreds of pieces were wonderfully preserved in ancient storage rooms, niches in walls, and burial sites.

The show was designed by chief curator Bruce Bernstein and by John Garrigan, a Redlake Ojibwa and former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The atmosphere vibrates with lively ``dialogue'' between pots. A Mimbres bowl made in AD 1050 in southern New Mexico sits beside a plate made in 1939 by Maria and Julian Martinez, a San Ildefonso Pueblo couple whose artistry helped usher Indian pottery into the larger United States economy. Mr. Martinez adapted the feather design from Mimbres bowls he had seen, and that feather design has become so much a part of Tewa pottery that it is now identified as Tewa.

``In the early part of the century, Pueblo people were badly treated by the dominant culture, which tried to destroy Indian culture,'' Bernstein said as we walked around the exhibit. ``But suddenly in the teens and '20s, artists both within the Pueblos and without, along with the museum community, suggested that pottery was a way into the outside world. Indians needed to enter into the cash economy, and the paradox is that they chose something as integral to Indian culture as pottery to do that.''

Many husband-and-wife teams made art together - the Martinez couple being among the most famous. Maria created the objects, and Julian painted them.

``Our idea of the artist in western society is a half-crazed fringe person working alone,'' Bernstein said. ``But in Indian culture, art is ... completely integrated into daily life.''

One display illustrates how the Spanish influenced the kinds of pots made - they demanded soup bowls with a wide lip, for example. And because the Spanish brought wheat, enormous storage jars were needed. Designs evolved, too, after contact with Europeans, though the symbolism of various figures remained the same. Around 1850, bird and flower designs on Zia pots became less stylized and more realistic, reflecting designs in Spanish embroidery and painting. Despite modification, the pots retained the integrity of Indian art, Bernstein points out.

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One of the most beautiful pieces in the show was made by Christine McHorse, a Navajo woman. The tall pot, a micaceous ware with pinon pitch coating, carries a rich sheen within its elegant design. Her work reflects in contemporary terms the melding of different traditions.

Many of the modern bowls, jars, and plates use traditional designs in innovative styles. Joseph Lonewolf, a Santa Clara Indian, fires his jars and then etches the design into the finish - a technique called scragfitto. The old symbols for rain and for Kokopelli, the hunchbacked flute player, swirl around the top of one small red jar.

The show's opening coincides with the publication of archaeologist Stewart Peckham's ``From This Earth: The Ancient Art of Pueblo Pottery'' and honors his more than 30 years of field work and directorship of the museum's adjoining Laboratory of Anthropology.

The exhibition continues through 1992.

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