BY THE time Columbus "discovered" America, several
civilizations had come and gone in the Southwest, leaving few clues
to the cause of their demise.
But what they did leave behind is a remarkable record of
pottery production, a Native American art form that continues
"Pottery From the American Southwest," an exhibition in Gallery
120 at the St. Louis Art Museum, displays pottery from the
prehistoric to the present - but it is the work of the ancient
civilizations that highlights the show.
Seven pieces are from the Mimbres culture, a group of people
that inhabited small farming villages from A.D. 200 to A.D. 1300 in
what is now the southwest corner of New Mexico. The Mimbres
specialized in bowls painted with intricate designs on the inside.
The subject matter ranged from realistic rabbits and
rattlesnakes to humans and mythological creatures with both human
and animal body parts. Some bowls feature only geometric patterns.
Many of the bowls were placed over the face of the dead during
burial, and have a "kill" hole in the middle to allow the spirit of
the deceased to pass into the sacred world.
Among those on display in the exhibition is a bowl with a
painting of a long-tailed animal with a human head, a small bowl
with a soaring swallow in the middle, a ladle-shaped bowl with a
ghost-like figure and a large pot that features three insects -
grubs? - around the rim.
The museum's best examples of Mimbres pottery are two bowls in
the small permanent display of the American Indian collection. One
features rabbits and the other shows two cranes dining on a large
fish. Both are spectacular examples of the art form.
The show stoppers in the exhibition in Gallery 120 are three
pieces in the section of Anasazi work. The Anasazi, or "ancient
ones," were the cliff dwellers whose homes can be seen in Canyon de
Chelly, Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park and other scenic
spots in the Southwest.
The Anasazi specialized in large vase-shaped ollas - pronounced
oi-yas - painted in black and white with swirls, zigzags, squares,
triangles and other abstract forms. Three of the Anasazi pieces -
two by the Gila culture and a third labeled Pima - are painted in
cream, black and red. One is a large olla and the other two are
huge bowls. All three are stunning in size and execution.
Unfortunately, two of the works in the display - one a Mimbres
bowl and the other an Anasazi black-and-white olla - have been
removed temporarily for restoration. Many prehistoric finds are
broken into shards that must be pieced together.
The museum is improving the repair work on these two pieces,
but the work should have been done before the show opened, rather
than leave two voids in the display.
The third ancient culture in the exhibition technically is not
American Indian. The Casas Grande lived about 100 miles south of
the Rio Grande in Mexico. The seven pieces on display came from the
Museum's Morton D. May collection.
Casas Grande pottery also features humans and animals. The
pieces in the exhibition are decorated with snakes, badger and
parrot heads and a human face. Again, the museum's best examples of
Casas Grande pottery are in the permanent display.
The gallery exhibition includes pottery from the historic
period, including minor works by the two most famous Native
American potters, Nampeyo of the Hopi tribe and Maria Poveka
Martinez of San Ildefonso pueblo.
Two fine Acoma pots are in the show, although one is mislabeled
A selection of contemporary pottery includes 21 miniatures, but
the historic as well as the contemporary pieces pale when displayed
next to the imposing work of the prehistoric peoples.
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