Milestone exhibit honors generational histories of Pueblo pottery

October 18, 2023 - Salome Borrego-Marsh

A half-century ago, the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology produced Seven Families in Pueblo Pottery, an exhibit that not only recognized Pueblo pottery as art for the first time, but also represented its makers as artists, emphasizing generational knowledge and practice. Thanks in part to a Community-Based Research Initiative (CBRI) award, that groundbreaking exhibit will serve as a touchstone for a 50th anniversary celebration in 2025 to reinterpret Pueblo pottery.

While few Maxwell Museum pots were initially exhibited, the new exhibit will feature nearly 100 pots from the permanent collection, interpreted by artists and community members whose artistic traditions they represent.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Seven Families in Pueblo Pottery, Curator of Ethnology, Lea McChesney, is recognizing a wider diversity of Pueblo artists and their art forms, bringing representatives from the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico, the Hopi Tribe of Arizona, and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas to the Maxwell to serve as co-curators of the new exhibit.

These artists are selecting the works to be included in the exhibit and accompanying catalogue and will be recorded narrating their selections and the significance of these works. McChesney has tentatively titled the project, “Families in Pueblo Pottery: Regenerating Art, Experience, and Practice”. The final title of the exhibit and its themes will be determined collectively by Pueblo artists and community members in conjunction with museum staff.

Some of the families from the original exhibit are included (the Lewis family, Acoma; the Nampeyo family, Hopi; the Tafoya family, Santa Clara; the Martinez family, San Ildefonso), while many other families and Pueblos are also represented. As with the original exhibit, their stories often refer to generational knowledge and practice but they also address different historical experiences and relationships in pottery-making traditions. 

McChesney describes the original exhibit as a “milestone in the recognition of Native American Art from [then] contemporary perspectives” and hopes that this exhibit, too, will be transformative for our understanding of Pueblo pottery and Indigenous arts when seen through these new perspectives. 

To honor the initial project and to broaden our understanding of pottery as an art form grounded in Pueblo ontologies, McChesney has begun the important work of documenting pottery in the museum’s collection from all Pueblos in the region in order to safeguard their fundamental histories and artistic knowledge for future generations.

Ultimately, the project aims to broaden the understanding of the diverse knowledge of Pueblo pottery throughout the region by exploring “complex histories and interactions through these cultural heritage items” that also express distinctive values and beliefs, including aesthetics. In addition, McChesney says that “the museum will gain invaluable information for its records, improving documentation and improve[ing] its means of access to collections in storage areas.”

Together with Sr. Ethnology Collections Manager and Museum Registrar, Lauren Fuka; Research Assistant, Hope Casareno (Esselen Tribe of Monterey County); and Project Assistant, Alexis Lucero (Isleta Pueblo), McChesney and her team will work to broaden knowledge of Pueblo pottery to include important information from all Pueblo communities. 

The funding they received from the CBRI will help them do this, as it will allow for over 20 artists to make additional visits to the Maxwell Museum in order to finalize their selections of pottery from the museum’s substantial collection. During these visits, their oral histories will be recorded as they go through the process of making their selections and finalizing the exhibit’s themes and content.

McChesney explains that the research and “insights gained from ethical, relational curation and extensive visits to the collection” by the artists will be a major step in accomplishing the project's goals.

Initial visits to the museum were made possible by a Henry Luce Foundation Grant through its Program in American Art. The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to broaden knowledge in hopes of creating a more just world. They support this mission by nurturing and encouraging many types of knowledge from communities and institutions. Funding from the CBRI will allow the artists and McChesney’s team to refine the 2025 exhibit.

The CBRI was established in 2022 as a joint funding opportunity between the Center for Regional Studies and the College of Arts & Sciences. Its goal is to support projects that engage with a New Mexico or Southwest community and work to develop or help with practical and real-life solutions to the challenges facing people in the 21st century.

Together, these funding agencies support a collective gathering of all participants in the project to finalize exhibit and catalog content.

The completion of this project will include an exhibit, catalog, and programming welcoming others from these communities to utilize the vast resources that are being enhanced through this collaboration. With the resulting catalog, improved documentation, and established community relationships, the project will live on well beyond the exhibition, benefitting future generations of artists, reinvigorating their values and beliefs in the arts, and furthering the continuity of this artistic practice.