Wheelwright Museum of Indian art: preserving a reverence for life

Why does so-called ''primitive'' art appeal so strongly to our modern taste? Perhaps because it is direct, unpretentious, and has such a strong sense of integrity of purpose.

Almost invariably, whether it be the wood carvings of the New Zealand Maori or the cave paintings of Lascaux in France, primitive art is linked to worship. It also happens to obey many of the rules of form, order, and balance that we have set as our criteria for judging aesthetics - although it often does so in refreshingly unorthodox ways. In addition, it has an exotic, mysterious quality for us, offering a glimpse inside a world, a mentality, very different from our own.

American Indian art abounds with these otherworldly qualities, and New Mexico is one place to get to know it at its finest. In the sedate patterns of a Navajo rug or the sharp geometrics of a Pueblo pot, the reverence for life, the discipline, the artistic sophistication of these ancient peoples shine through.

On a windblown stretch of road just outside Santa Fe, N.M., stands a museum dedicated exclusively to the preservation and exhibition of American Indian art. The Wheelwright Museum is housed in a building quite unlike the tawny adobe structures characteristic of this unique state capital. Designed in 1936 by architect William Penhallow Henderson, the museum is a replica of a Navajo ceremonial hogan. It is stark white, polygonal in form, with a truncated pyramid-shaped roof. Its only source of natural light is a skylight set in the roof and facing toward the east.

Rain Parrish, curator of the Wheelwright Museum and herself a Navajo, related the unusual details of this museum's origins in a recent interview.

''Mary Cabot Wheelwright (the museum's founder) first came to Santa Fe from Boston in 1918. There was the whole pioneering spirit then that was moving West , and she was one of these people.

''She bought a home 35 miles north of Santa Fe. It was not unusual for her to take as many as 60 days to explore the mountains and the regions throughout the Southwest. On one of these occasions, she was coming back through Navajo land in Arizona, and she came across a trading post - an outpost in the middle of nowhere. It was early winter; there was a blizzard coming on, and the people were very cordial and hospitable and took care of her.

''They told her about a Navajo medicine man by the name of Hasteen Klah, and a ceremony that he was giving to the east of where they were. So she and her friends went over there. It was blowing snow, and out of the ceremonial hogan (very much like this museum building, but a smaller version) came this elderly Navajo man. Miss Wheelwright said later, 'I'll never forget how gentle and how powerful he seemed.' ''

Although they had to communicate through interpreters, a sense of mutual respect and collaboration soon developed between the two. According to Ms. Parrish, Wheelwright had a strong desire to understand the meaning behind Navajo ceremonies, chants, and sand paintings. Klah, on the other hand, felt an urgent need to preserve the symbols and artifacts of his people's religion from being lost forever.

During the years that followed, Ms. Parrish explained, all the sacred paraphernalia of Navajo worship, including recordings of ceremonial chants, was collected by Wheelwright with the help of Hasteen Klah. It was to form the core of this unusual museum's collection.

In 1975 the museum took the step that most nearly fulfilled the original wishes of Hasteen Klah to preserve the artifacts of Navajo religion for future generations of Navajos. In that year, they turned over the sacred ''bundles'' of Navajo religious ceremony to the Ned Hatathli Cultural Center at Navajo Community College in Tsaile, Ariz. This step allowed the museum to expand its collection to include the art of all native Americans, and the name was changed to the Wheelright Museum of the American Indian.

The museum's policy today, under director Susan McGreevy, is to hold three exhibits a year. Since last May, and ending on Oct. 3, the sculpture of Apache artist Alan Houser has been on view. This exhibit will be followed on Oct. 14 by an exhibit of Guatemalan Mayan paintings and textiles, featuring the works of Nicolas Reanda. Textiles and paintings of Navajo sand paintings from the museum's permanent collection (several by Hasteen Klah himself) will be shown from Feb. 24 to May 12, 1985, and Hopi Kachina dolls will be on display from May 26 to Sept. 22, 1985. A wide selection of Indian jewelry, pottery, rugs, and other handicrafts are sold throughout the year in the Trading Post gift shop below the museum.

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