Among the indigenous artists of the Americas, ceramists have developed signature pottery forms that are based on traditional cooking and storage vessels. These artists often also developed elaborate, decorative forms of pottery to serve for important civic or ritual occasions, as well as to cater to and satisfy high-status patrons. Some forms, motifs, and designs on these vessels may be figural, while others are highly abstracted, and much of the imagery may be symbolic, reflecting important cultural or religious belief systems.
One aspect of the native art of the Americas that is not well-known is that these traditional native arts drastically developed and changed, even in ancient times, with artists developing new techniques and designs or adopting techniques from other indigenous cultures with whom they came into contact through trade, interaction, or even war. Likewise, while some indigenous ceramic artists today strive to carry on forms and painted motifs based on ancient designs, others draw on tradition along with contemporary cultural experiences, and through widespread interaction in the global community, these cultures are participating in the international art world as well as in the tourist trade. Nevertheless, while many native artists have adopted new and sometimes more efficient media and techniques, they continue to incorporate their own traditional imagery, styles, and themes into their art, thus adapting and developing forms and designs to create vibrant new indigenous artforms.
These five vessels take the traditional form of the Native American Southwest olla, or storage jar. The shiny, burnished surfaces of the vessels are each decorated on the upper, main panel with colored slip in stylized, geometric designs, including stripes, grids, curved triangles or waves, spirals, and stepped bands and shapes, as well as more unusual motifs including triangular spirals and starbursts. The necks of the vessels are plain, decorated with a single stripe, or impressed with semi-circular indentions.
The olla form and the red, black, and tan, paneled geometric designs on these vessels directly emulate the Babícora Polychrome style of the Mogollon subculture known as the Casas Grandes peoples, who lived in what is today northern Mexico and the southern part of the state of New Mexico. These five vessels, however, are much smaller than traditional ollas, which were usually large jars for carrying and storing water, and the forms are slightly uneven, unlike the nearly perfect, symmetrical forms of ancient Casas Grandes pottery. Further, the traditional designs on these vessels are rendered in simpler fashion and in a less precise and graceful hand than on the ancient vessels.
More likely than not, therefore, these vessels are not ancient Casas Grandes vessels, but examples of the revival of this form of pottery by late 19th and early 20th-century ceramic artists of the local village of Mata Ortiz of northern Mexico—possibly the descendants of the Casas Grandes cultures. In the late 19th century, Mormon/L.D.S. settlers who had moved into the American Southwest region began to “pothunt,” or dig up and recover Casas Grandes pottery from local ancient Native American sites. When railroads extended through New Mexico and people began to tour the American Southwest, interest in collecting ancient and contemporary Native American pottery began to flourish. Mata Ortiz ceramists then began making replicas inspired by the ancient pottery in response to the popularity of Casas Grandes ollas. As noted on the tags affixed to the bottoms of these five vessels, they were collected by 1966; this corresponds with how early 20th century Mata Ortiz ceramics were often relatively small, quickly formed, and simply painted, as with these ollas.
After the 1970s, when pothunting had been made illegal, the making of pottery that imitated ancient designs also became less profitable. Mata Ortiz pottery then started to become progressively more sophisticated, as the ceramists turned their focus from quick production for the tourist trade to developing fine pottery. Since the late 20th century, Mata Ortiz ceramists have become recognized for the complex, beautiful forms of their pottery, as well as for their sophisticated, elaborate variations of painted geometric designs.
This wedding vase acts as a good example of contemporary Pueblo pottery that, while made for the tourist trade, emulates the careful crafting of traditional ceramics of the ancient Native American Southwest. Despite its similarity to a flower vase, this is a drinking vessel; the two spouts of the vessel symbolize the bride and the groom, who are joined by marriage similar to how symbolic ceramic bridge joins the two spouts. Traditionally, wedding vases were used to hold a liquid, and the bride and groom would drink from the vessel during the wedding ceremony.
Although mold-made, the Isleta Pueblo artist painted the vessel with a band of design with curved right triangles, each filled with negative or positive colored designs; the symmetrical form and the geometric motifs emulate aspects of traditional Ancestral Puebloan designs. Nevertheless, the artist also incorporated distinctly contemporary Pueblo design into the vessel, including the angled spouts, the leaves, flowers, and curved triangles, and the bright black and red pigments on the crisp, white background.
This vessel emulates Conté Polychrome pottery of the Early Coclé period, a style developed by the lower Central American, or ancient Isthmian, cultures of what is today the country of Panama. The traditional design consists of a repeating, stylized bird motif portrayed in yellow, reddish-brown, and dark brown on a plain, yellow-tan background, with each bird centered vertically between two parallel, multi-tone brown bands that wrap around the circumference of the vessel. The bird represents a tinamou, a native egg-laying land bird that represents fertility and life among contemporary Isthmian cultures and that was commonly portrayed in ancient imagery. The Y element in the bird’s head, the scroll design of the eye, nose, and tail, and the curved swell of the body and leg forms identify this painting clearly as executed in Conté Polychrome style.
Clearly identifying this vessel as a 20th-century reproduction is the word “Panama” painted above the bird motif, as well as the glossy surface of the vessel; ancient Conté Polychrome was matte, and this surface suggests that the vessel was finished with a resin or wax to protect the painted designs. The vessel was most likely made by a Mestizo (mixed Hispanic and indigenous) artist and purchased as a souvenir in the tourist trade.
This ceramic vessel was signed by Ramona, a contemporary Native American artist of the Lakota culture. While pottery is not an ancient artform among the Lakota, they adopted the making of ceramics from the cultures of the American Southwest. In contemporary times, the Lakota have developed their own ceramic traditions, including the use of commercial glazes rather than the more traditional Native American use of slip to decorate vessels. Lakota pottery for personal or ritual use is usually made using red clay from the Black Hills of South Dakota, which is a sacred region to the Lakota people, but Lakota pottery made for the tourist trade is often made using commercial white clay, as was this vessel.
The Lakota express their cultural traditions in ceramics through painted designs that are derived from traditional beadwork and quillwork motifs. The Paha Sapa design, the symbol for the Black Hills, is carved into the glaze on each side of this vessel and consists of a stepped triangle shape, within which is the outline of a triangle, and inside the larger triangle sits a small, solid, inverted triangle. Alternating with the Paha Sapa designs are motifs consisting of five carved parallel vertical lines, which are symbols for rain, that extend down in graduated form from the top of the glazed bands; each group of lines also forms an inverted triangle, which represents good crops.
This vessel was purchased at Lake Titicaca in the Andean region of South America. The reddish color of the exposed clay body suggests that this vessel is made of red terracotta, as are many traditional utilitarian vessels made by both ancient and contemporary Andean cultures of this region. The entire exterior of the vessel is covered in splotchy areas of black pigment, which may have been an applied slip or the result of carbon deposits from the firing process. Scratches on the outside, a chip on the rim, and cracks near the handle indicate that the vessel may have been used prior to sale, and the irregular form and the lack of identifiable motifs suggest that it was a utilitarian vessel rather than a ritual object or specifically made for the tourist trade. The vessel was most likely produced and sold by Uru-Chipaya artisans, as these peoples live on the manufactured islands in Lake Titicaca, and an important source of their income involves selling handmade items in the tourist trade.
For more information, you may contact the researcher(s) noted in the title of this exhibit entry, or Dr. Billie Follensbee, the professor of the course, at BillieFollensbee@MissouriState.edu