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To Know the Fire: Pueblo Women Potters and the Shaping of History

1/27/2022 - 9/3/2022
Organizing institution: Krannert Art Museum at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Primary Curator: Allyson Purpura

This exhibition brings together a selection of earthenware vessels from the Pueblo communities of New Mexico and Arizona generously gifted to KAM by the late George Ogura. Taking its title from the words of Laguna Pueblo potter Gladys Paquin, recalling the precarious art of ground-firing pots with kindling and manure, To Know the Fire explores the history, sociality, and poetics of Pueblo vessels and their makers. Handed down through the generations, pottery making in Pueblo communities has long been associated with lineages of renowned women potters. Many potters today view their work as a spiritual act, connecting them to their extraordinary predecessors. The Ogura gift includes, among others, works dating between the 1930s and 1980s by artists from the acclaimed Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa Pueblo), Navasie (Hopi Pueblo), Lewis (Acoma Pueblo), and Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo) families. A selection of more recent miniature vessels also demonstrate the potters’ virtuosity, producing exquisitely detailed, minute replicas. The exhibition will explore the gendered, sensorial nature of the vessels’ materiality, the artists’ improvisational play with ancestral designs and forms, and the connections their practices enact between Pueblo lands and communities. Harvesting clay involves acts of reciprocity and gratitude to the Earth Mother that have cycled through generations of potters’ hands. To their makers, pots are vibrant things that they have brought into the world. Exclaiming themselves through form, color, and surface design, their aesthetic is also animated through sound—when tapped on its surface, a Hopi pot is thought to sing. While innovations in forms and designs testify to the inventiveness of individual artists, the sharing of knowledge, labor, and resources—sourcing and preparing the clay, harvesting and mixing natural pigments, making yucca fiber brushes, coiling, smoothing, sanding, polishing, and painting the vessel body, and finally, the firing—reveals the sociality of potting and the importance of collaboration in the artmaking process. The exhibition will also offer critical reflection on the history of the Pueblos that places the creativity and resilience of women artists front and center. In the late nineteenth century, with archeologists, tourists, and amateur photographers converging on Pueblo lands, commercial pottery became a significant means of livelihood and self-determination that has sustained many families to this day. That the vessels were created for sale on a global market does not compromise the personal attachments and cultural significance they hold for their makers. Thus “to know the fire” is to know this history and to recognize the power of art for community care, survivance, and wellbeing.

Exhibition Objects (82)

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