The Power of Pottery: Hopi Women Shaping the World

By McChesney, Lea S. | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Power of Pottery: Hopi Women Shaping the World

McChesney, Lea S., Women's Studies Quarterly


Activism typically connotes large-scale social action, as in its forceful use to accomplish political ends such as voting rights for women or economic parity in the marketplace. In an art world context, activism can be intended to provoke critical reaction to global events, drawing the audience into the art and engendering an emotional response, as described in a recent review of antiwar art (Robertson 2006). Taking my lead from women potters in the First Mesa community of the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona, through an analysis of their pottery I explore the informal activism of their everyday lives as the power to shape the world on their terms. Such a perspective addressing activism on a more fundamental level is akin to what some feminists have termed "mundane activism" (Shahin 2006), although here "creative activism" is more appropriate. In this subtler vein I want to consider the capacity of these women to intervene materially in the world and influence social life on the individual level that ramifies outward into wider social relations: to produce things (i.e., Hopi pots) that foster and enhance the sociality they hold dear.1

While participation in a market economy has fostered increasing individuation over the course of a century, pottery making remains first and foremost a social activity. Hopi women consider their pottery activities (making, using, and even selling their pots to non-Hopis) more productive when these derive from "close" social relations. What Hopis mean by "close" and understanding how the concept is manifested and reproduced in pottery, then, poses a problem in its own right, which I address through the ethnography of intimacy. To paraphrase Robertson (2006, 30) on art activism, I argue that the effect of this Hopi women's art is to engage its audience, whether in their home communities or in more distant social spheres of the art market, in social relationships that encourage mutualities of sentiment, laying the emotive groundwork for flourishing collective action. Hopi pots embody and engender their concept of "closeness" or intimacy in whatever context they enter, promoting the warm, positive affect that underlies all productive relationships and ensuring the reproduction of this value in the world. Importantly, potters intend that these objects circulate to transform the world in this way, an intention that signifies their understanding of activism.

Concerned with how potters represent the cultural significance of pottery and the activity of pottery making, I pay particular attention to their emphasis on the construction of "closeness" in interpersonal relationships as demonstrated by pottery making. While the iconography of painted pottery has received most attention in the literature and indeed is the basis by which this work has been assessed as art (e.g., Bernstein 1994: Brody 1979), plainware pottery, specifically the piki bowl, best illustrates Hopis' conceptual and symbolic links among activism, intimacy, and emotion in this art (Fig. 1).

Plainware pottery especially reveals how Hopi concepts of intimacy and the value of close relations are manifested as aesthetic dimensions of their world. In turn, I explore how these aesthetic qualities orient persons who encounter this art to a way of being in the world, inducing social relations of a particular character, cast, or quality. While my intent is to point a direction for "rethinking" Hopi ethnography (Whiteley 1998), because of space limitations I can only sketch those parameters here.


Principally but not exclusively produced through women's labor, Hopi pots comprise a root metaphor about social beings and their phenomenological existence in the world.2 They index larger cosmological ideas of Hopi life set out "at the beginning" that specify the basis of human relationships at the same time that their pots and pottery making help to realize that world in the present.

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