A native art: timeless, but still changing

This is the Fourth World. The Hopis say the First World was an Eden, but man mucked it up by succumbing to evil, and the world was destroyed by fire. Man got another chance, but failed again. The Second World was consumed in ice. The Third World he still did not keep harmony with the original sense of things, so the world was washed away. But each time, a remnant who remained faithful to the truth of being were saved. The Fourth World is the last chance.

The idea that the Hopi may have come through several worlds already is not far- fetched if archaeologist Jeffrey Goodman's excavations in the San Francisco peaks -- the residence of the kachinas, or ancestral spirits -- mean what he thinks they do. Geological evidence shows that violent volcanic activity about 250,000 years ago, glacial action about 100,000 years ago, and flooding about 25 ,000 years ago would have brought obliteration each time. Goodman has found artifacts dated as far back as 125,000 years ago, indicating the presence of man. The Hopis may well know what they are talking about. This gives tourists more than the curiosity of a snake dance to consider, as does any serious investigation of Indian lore.

In tribal societies that do not have a written language the traditions are preserved orally and in dance and visually. The pictograph is a symbol of movement, a moment of gesture pinned down, as it were. Other visualization in the form of costumes, decoration, murals, and so forth are efforts to convey the essence of the idea and are not attempts at "realism," which the artists see as trivial.

Art in a society such as that of the Hopi is interwoven with daily life, and everyone is an artist. As a matter of course, children learn to integrate religious concepts with the making of household utensils, farming and hunting gear, clothing and buildings. Ceremonies require special objects, but these, too, are part of everyday life. Decoration and form come naturally as visual reminders of ultimate meaning.

As a child matures he is initiated into deeper levels of this meaning, and such growth continues throughout his adult life, whether ritualized or not.

But when water comes out of a pipe and food from a supermarket, is it still necessary to pray for rain so the crops can grow and the people live another year? Well, yes, if one takes the long view. However, if all one's artistic efforts are not channeled into maintenance of life in the old ways, they may be turned into new channels.

At a period when the old way was under severe attack by government agencies , missionaries, and even other Indian raiders, and before any movement out of the poverty into which the Indians were plunged by these depradations, a few scattered individuals seized an opportunity to try a new use for art. Around the turn of the century, several archaeologists, digging in the ruins of ancient Southwest pueblos, commissioned Indian helpers to record some of the amazing works of art being unearthed. In Awatovi, for instance, they found some very abstract murals and at Sikyatki very beautiful pottery which the modern Indians reproduced, thus stimulating interest in this artistic heritage among both Indians and Anglos. It provided a reservoir of ideas upon which the Hopis have drawn ever since.

At the same time some Novajos were discovered to be making drawings for their own pleasure. Plains Indians were drawing in notebooks provided for them by their captors and later got encouragement from a field matron stationed in Oklahoma for the Indian Service. But it wasn't until Dorothy Dunn established The Studio in Santa Fe in the 1930s that Indians from all over the Southwest got any Anglo art instruction.

Before that, the director of the School of American Research in Santa Fe, Edgar L. Hewett, gave Crescencio Martinez, of that now famous family of artists in San Idelfonso, a chance to paint while he worked at the Museum. A young lady named Quah Ah from the same pueblo attracted attention for her painting (begun at age 6) and received support from Anglo artists and collectors. The superintendent of the Santa Fe Indian School, John De Huff, was transferred elsewhere for going against government policy in allowing the children to paint, but Fred Kabotie got his first chance there.

Kabotie is now listed in Who's Who in American Art, has won many prizes, has work hanging in museums all over the country, has taught for years and helped establish crafts and markets for Hopi artists. His list of accomplishments reads like those of any of the major artists of this country, and yet he taught himself. Unlike Velino Herrera, a schoolmate of KAbotie's who was later cast out of the Zia pueblo for painting sacred ceremonies that were deemed secret, Kabotie has avoided censure. His paintings of ceremonial dances, like Russian icons, convey a sense of something beyond material appearance. Dorothy Dunn commented: "His performers are clearly not mortal men disguished as gods. They are gods." Jamake Highwater adds in Song From the Earth,m "It is difficult to find in the work of any other modern Indian artist a better portrayal of the relationship of the supernatural to the natural. This metaphysical drama is no doubt Kabotie's enormous appeal as a painter. . . ."

Now Kabotie's son Mike and several other post-World War II artists have formed the Artist Hopid to promote interest in and understanding of the Hopi culture while experimenting with new ideas and techniques, and marketing their work. They draw heavily on the inspiration from the Awatovi murals, reinterpreting the ancient stories in a very modern way. It all makes one think again about the symbolic nature of traditional legends, personifications, or dances which are intended to be guides to an understanding of ultimate reality.

Some Navajo artists have used their traditional sand paintings as a basis for contemporary work, much as the Hopis refer to Awatovi murals or Sikyatki designs. gerald Nailor, Ruth Watchman, and Mary Morez, for instance, have done so. But they do other kinds of painting also, some of it quite reminiscent of Persian miniatures. Perhaps Harrison Begay and Beatien Yazz are the most widely known artists whose work has the latter quality. In fact, that characteristic has become known as traditional among those who like to classify art.

But such a style, widespread though it seems to be among modern Indian artists across the country, is not traditional at all in the Indian sence, as Fritz Scholder tartly comments: "Here you have an artistic people who were prodded by pressures and suggestions and exploitation to create an entirely artificial [Western] art, which is rather inane and stupid and . . . simply decoration. . . ."

Scholder speaks for a different generation, however, which has had entirely different problems to face. The earlier artists either began to paint at The Studio in Santa Fe or in Oklahoma, where field matron Susan Peters and later O. W. Jacobson at the University of Oklahoma gave encouragement to Kiowas and other displaced Plains and Eastern Indians. Younger Indians have been much more integrated into Anglo life, willy-nilly, and their problems, Scholder's included , has been not so much to hang onto their traditions and identity as to rediscover them.

It does seem true that Dorothy Dunn had strong ideas as to what constituded Indian art, and would not let her students stray very far from those ideas. Yet she perceived and appreciated her students' sense of color and design, their natural ability to organize a composition, and their use of flat color in two-dimensional paterns, for murals, sand paintings, pottery decoration, and so forth. Her intent was to set this native American art against that of the rest of the world, confident that it would hold its own and demonstrate the kind of contribution Indians could make to art internationally. In this she succeeded admirably, as her students' work entered museum and private collections, and won prizes and acclaim from Santa Fe to Prague.

However, some of the artists labeled Traditional never went to The Studio. They were simply following their own instinct of picture-making using the new materials of paper and watercolor, oils and crayons. Alfonso Roybal (Awa Tsireh), Crescencio Martinez's nephew, did what might be called classic painting , mixing abstraction with realism. His pictures, still stand among the most beautiful in their elegant simplicity. A group called the Kiowa Five -- Jack Hokeah, Spencer Asah, Monroe Tsatoke, James Auchiah, and Louise Smoky -- led the way in Oklahoma. Then, at the time The Studio was founded, Bacone Junior College in Muskogee had an art department run by Indians: Acee Blue Eagle, Creek-Pawnee; Woody Crumbo, a Creek-Potawatomi; and Dick West, a Cheyenne, successively. The Persian miniature quality is in their work, too, and in that of their students. One can see it even in some Seminole painting.

The Traditional shows quite an evolution, though, becoming more and more individualistic with the later painters. The work of Blackbear Bosin, who is Kiowa-Comanche, is highly emotional, in contrast to the classic calm of the work of Quah Ah. Both artists were self-taught but painted from different needs. Bosin says he was breaking out of his confinement, which he described as the isolation in which he had always worked: lack of spiritual heritage, no other artists near, no ancestral land left or place to go. "The only thing left . . . was our imaginations and our visions and memories of the past when we were free, " he says. Quah Ah, whatever other challenges she faced, was deprived of none of those things, because she came from the pueblos, which had never suffered the intense disruptions of the Plains Indians.

Maybe Rance Hood, another self-taught Comanche painter, goes as far as any of the artists whose work shows traits of the Traditional. His depictions of peyote visions are so charged with energy they electrify the viewer. And he is also capable of satiric comment, thus placing himself outside the Traditional camp and somewhere on the fringes of what has come to be called the Contemporary. That term may be as much of a misnomer as Traditional, but it seems to stand for art that looks more Anglo or European in style and content.

With pictures of Seminole life by Fred Beaver one comes again to the quality labeled Traditional. It is interesting that work from the Southwest and the Southeast retains a more settled appearance -- it comes from more settled people. The Hopis may be doing the utmost to make a go of the Fourth World, but it looks as if another metamorphosis is taking place for some of the mid-continent wanderers.

The second half of this essay on Indian Art will appear on tomorrow's Home Forum page.

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