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Reimagined exhibit showcases enduring legacy of Southwest Indigenous art

Native Americans have long called the Southwest home. Yet, the true scope of their rich history and culture has often been overlooked. Now the updated permanent exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe is showcasing both historic and contemporary Native artwork.

"Here, Now, and Always" is the newest reimagined exhibit from the museum that’s dedicated to giving Native Americans control of their own narratives.

At a preview this week, curator Tony Chavarria of Santa Clara Pueblo, who focused on themes of cycles in the exhibit, says when the museum’s core exhibition first opened in 1997 it was one of the first in the region to incorporate Native perspectives. This new iteration continues that mission.

"[We want] to give a voice to the Native people of the Southwest, and provide basically a new perspective, a new era," Chavarria said. "So it's important to give that voice to this generation that keeps growing. Native people don't want to be stuck in time like it's the 1880s."

Diné weaver Kevin Aspaas speaks about his strong connection to his culture through his love for his community and his determination to continue the practices on a video by Charine Gonzales in the new exhibit.

"I am a weaver and fiber artist," said Aspaas in the video. "I started weaving back when I was 10 years old, it was mainly just to continue a legacy that my maternal grandmother passed on. And ever since then, being involved in my community, both within Shiprock and the surrounding communities, learning from different elders and master weavers and shepherds. And then gradually I think, as I got older, I began to realize that it's much more than a legacy. It's the lifestyle."

Chavarria said curators worked to represent the whole Southwest.

"We tried to include every tribe in New Mexico, and also those around us, as well in Arizona, and even parts of northern Mexico."

Diane Bird from Santo Domingo Pueblo curated themes of survival and resilience. She said U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, from Laguna Pueblo, donated the turquoise ceremonial dress she wore while being sworn into office in 2021. Haaland was one of the first Native American women elected to Congress.

"So she knows how to get her hands in the dirt," Bird said. "So it's like any person that's willing to do that. I respect them. And I really admire them and how far they've come."

Among Bird’s favorite pieces are those by Tonita Peña from Cochiti and San Ildefonso pueblos and Allan Houser who was Chiricahua Apache. Both of them attended the Santa Fe Indian boarding school.

"I would have a hard time saying which one I like best because to me, they're both great not because of the artists that paint them but the subject that's in them."

Peña’s "Green Corn Dance" is a 1940’s painting showing Cochiti men and women dancing traditionally. This is significant given that the U.S. government sought to remove Native American practices just 10 years prior to the making of this piece.

Houser’s "Ghan Dancers" was made in 1934 and depicts five Chiricahua Apache dancers on a black background with hooded masks, painted crowns, and wands. The Ghan’s Dance is meant to be a healing and renewal ceremony to protect the Apaches from disease and their enemies.

"The Apache still have that as vibrant people to keep their communities alive," Bird said. "Pueblo people, we still have this for our dances, whether it's in the winter or the summer, and we're carrying it on, and it hasn't disappeared." 

Chavarria hopes this opportunity will give Native American artists the space to share their history and stories and give others a greater understanding.

"I hope that visitors when they come here will get a sense of Native culture here in the Southwest that has amazingly deep roots. But it's also still very vibrant and alive today, and their work and their cultures are significant and complex."

"Here, Now, and Always" opens on July 2, 2022 at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe.

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