Testament to Remarkable Artistic Past Native American Pottery Opens Door to History
Tom Uhlenbrock Of the Post-Dispatch Robert W. Duffy Carol Ferring Shepley, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
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 unabated today.
"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 as Zuni.
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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