Long-hidden American Indian treasures to go on view


November 04, 1990|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Archaeologists, anthropologists, art historians and volunteers who have been "digging" in the cavernous basements of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania have made some remarkable finds that have not seen the light of day in nearly a century.

The exhibition, "Beauty from the Earth," opens Nov. 10 and displays 135 pieces of Pueblo Indian pottery from the museum's collection, culled from well over 3,500 pieces collected at the turn of the century and stored in the museum's basement. Over RTC the last four years a group of volunteers dusted off the grime and put the pots on shelves. The selection on display demonstrates the considerable decorative and expressive appeal of painted pottery from the Southwest.

Collectors who have recently paid as much as $50,000 and $75,000 for the finest examples realize that American Indian pottery is as important a flowering of ceramic art as ancient Greek red and black figure vases or Chinese Imperial Ming porcelain. These collectors, students and connoisseurs are expected to beat a path to Philadelphia to see this exhibit which continues through Aug. 3, 1991, and then begins an eight-city tour.

J. J. Brody, professor emeritus of art history at the University of New Mexico, who has written a number of books about Pueblo Indian art, made the selections and wrote the catalog for the show.

Choosing from the strengths of the collection, Dr. Brody selected vessels from a group of painted utilitarian and ceremonial wares made in the western pueblos of Laguna, Acoma, Zia and Zuni in New Mexico as well as pottery from the Hopi villages of First Mesa in Arizona.

Most of them were made for household use. However, some -- turn-of-the-century bowls and ollas -- by such gifted artists as Nampeyo, a Hopi, were made for the tourist trade. To demonstrate the continuity of the Pueblo traditions Dr. Brody chose several examples of the black on white, black on red and black on gray wares made from 700 A.D. to 1200 A.D. by the ancestors of the Pueblos, known as the Anasazi, who lived in the Four Corners region where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet.

Painted stepped terraces, interlocking scrolls, feather designs, even a humpbacked cliff dweller hunting with bows and arrows seen on prehistoric pots reappear on vessels made at Acoma and Zuni pueblos in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nampeyo herself copied older Sikyatki designs and vessel forms and then taught others her craft.

"To an unusual degree we know the history of the Anasazi through their painted pottery," writes Dr. Brody in the 96-page catalog which discusses the stylistic development and historic context in which Anasazi and Pueblo pottery was made. In addition to 35 color photographs of pottery, 18 ethnographic photographs document Pueblo life at the turn of the 20th century when the pottery was collected.

Scholars divide American Indian pottery into four units of time. Prehistoric is the time prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1540, before written records. Protohistoric is from 1300 to 1700, when the Anasazi city states at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde were abandoned and the population settled in what the Spanish called pueblos in the Rio Grande region and the Colorado plateau. Influence of the Spanish is evident.

In the Historic period, 1700 to 1875, Spanish rule was succeeded by Mexican and then by that of the United States. The railroad penetrated Indian territory and the tourist market began. The Modern period, after 1875, saw the transition from pottery for use to pottery for sale.

The museum's collection came from a variety of sources. In 1896 A. Phebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst, gave $14,500 for the purchase of about 1,000 items including the collection of pottery shown in a cliff-shaped building on the midway of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

In 1901, with funds provided by John Wanamaker, the department store founder, Stewart Culin, the first director of the University Museum, bought a second large collection, one formed by Thomas Corwin Donaldson, a Philadelphian who traveled through the Southwest as a census taker. Wanamaker also funded the first of a series of museum-sponsored expeditions to the Southwest.

The show catalog costs $19.95 at the museum, $21.95 by mail. (In Pennsylvania, add $1.20 sales tax.) Send check or money order made out to University Museum Publications Department, University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 33rd and Spruce streets, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104. For information, call (215) 898-4000.

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