Hopi Art-Modern Symbols of an Ancient People: Tradition, Heritage and Culture Blend in the Art of the Hopi

Article excerpt

TRADITION: An all-important word among the Hopi Indians who live in the high plateau country of northeastern Arizona. Tradition, including the creation of beautiful arts and crafts, links the present and the ancient past. The cliff-dwelling ancestors of the Hopis made intricately designed pottery and tightly woven baskets. They fashioned jewelry from shell and turquoise, pecked design into or painted them onto cliff walls, and wore clothing woven from native-grown hand-spun cotton.

Like their ancestors, today's Hopi artists work in a variety of media, including painting, basket and textile weaving, sculpting, and the making of pottery and jewelry. However, they are probably best known for their kachina carvings.

Kachinas are part of the Pueblo culture, particularly the Hopis; kachinas carved by non-Puebloans are never authentic, and usually are not particularly well done.

Kachina carvings were originally made to be given as gifts to girls during ceremonies.

Through the years, some recipients began to sell their kachinas. This led to carving kachinas strictly for commercial purposes, a practice that evolved into fine art, turning out kachina carvings to be exhibited and sold in museums and galleries. Kachina art continues to evolve. Today many artists create exemplary works from one solid piece of cottonwood root, with no accouterments added, and flowing free-form from the natural shape of the wood.

Kachina carving comes from the heart of those immersed in Hopi culture. Because of the importance of kachinas and the strong emotions they evoke, artists pay homage to them in other types of Hopi art.

"My paintings emphasize the kachinas because they are so important to the Hopi People," Richard Lomahinma Dawavendewa explained. "I use images from our ceremonies, and try to portray what they represent and how I feel about them. When I paint, I put my heart and spirit into it. I try to give life to each painting. Kachinas are the backbone of our culture."

As the Hopi life-style revolves around their ceremonies, it is a rare piece of art that lacks spiritual connotations, how could it be otherwise when ritual is the heart and soul of "being Hopi?" And as kachinas are an essential part of spiritual life, it seems only natural that they offer an endless source of inspiration and are the most prominent figures in Hopi art. Although paintings include a variety of media from oils to acrylics to watercolors to prints, spirituality is always a central theme.

Most Hopi artists learn their skills at an early age from their own people, particularly family members. Perhaps the most important artistic influence for youngsters is that their entire world is immersed in art. Making pottery or jewelry, weaving baskets, carving kachinas, or painting is simply something that most everyone does. There seems to be little doubt that talent is an inherent trait, but the artistic environment undoubtedly also has a profound effect. The ancient villages, extraordinary landscapes of ragged mesas, and endless vistas, contribute to the artist's vision, as do the rumbling thunderstorms. Timeless legends inspire the imagination, and ceremonies provide colorful visual experiences. However, at times, something very different stirs the artistic imagination. Michael Dean Jenkins (also known as Dean Michaels) won a first prize for his Mocking Kachina at the 1997 Museum of northern Arizona Hopi Marketplace.

"We were in Hollywood last fall, walking down the Strip, looking at guitars," Dean explained. "We went into one of those old comic-book stores. They had porcelain figures of comic-book characters standing around. …