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Exhibit showcases Pueblo pottery though a Native perspective

Pottery plays a predominant role in Native American culture serving as a practice that links past and present. But it has often been exhibited through the lens of academia or museum experts. A new show at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is curated by the Indigenous communities the pottery represents.

"Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery" is the newest exhibit from the School of Advanced Research (SAR) and the Vilcek Foundation featuring over a hundred works of clay. This collection celebrates the 100th anniversary of the creation of SAR's Indian Arts Research Center's pottery collection, which was founded in 1922.

"You know they're not perfect because it was not really intended to be that way," said curator Lonnie Vigil from Nambé Pueblo in a video that's part of the exhibit. "In reality, nothing is perfect."

"It was like a calling out from the pot itself. Like here I am, in its entirety. I’m here for you," said another curator, Max Early from Laguna Pueblo, in the same video.

They’re among the curators who share their perspective of Pueblo community and culture with an essay or poem alongside their chosen pottery at the exhIbit.

Former governor and current cultural advisor of Acoma Pueblo Brian Vallo, said his chosen pot reminds him of his grandmother, who was a master potter, and who loved to paint what she called Zuni fat tail birds.

"This is the body of the bird and this elongated kind of fat tail and so I use to laugh about and she would do it just like in a sweep of the brush," he said. "If you look at the form of the bird on the pot, it's just like two long strokes that creates the body and the tail. So I picked this pot because of that and it just reminded me of my grandma, in the story she would tell, and just watching her paint those birds and how easy it was for her to do it."

On a recent morning, Elysia Poon, director of the Indian Arts Research Center at School for Advanced Research, walked through the building’s archive flanked by shelves teeming with pottery. She said Pueblo people face all kinds of misconceptions.

"There is often this assumption that all the Pueblos are the same, and there's like, almost a couple dozen," she said. "And they all have different cultural values, ideas, what's appropriate, what's not appropriate."

Vallo said one of the key focuses for this newest exhibit is to tell the story of pottery through a Pueblo view.

"From a Western perspective, or when you think of the practice of museology, there are standards for collecting," Vallo said. "Now in our respective communities, families have their own collections and I don't know that it is to preserve necessarily. We see them as living objects, we see them as cultural. Pottery plays a significant role in the life of a Pueblo person."

"I chose the nativity scene made by my auntie Mary," said Kathleen Wall who is a pottery maker herself from Jemez Pueblo who is deeply inspired by her family's ties to pottery.

The piece made by Mary Ellen Toya features the Holy Family, the three kings and sheep, a cow and a donkey. Wall said it represents practices in Jemez Pueblo and Catholicism.

"It's very interesting to me, and it's beautiful how the Pueblo religion and culture kind of just merged, and it was part of a survival tactic, I know, but it's become a very syncretic and very beautiful culture now, said Wall.

While the pots offer great significance to their curators, Poon says the pots themselves hold hundreds if not thousands of stories.

"If you think about pottery, or really any object. And you think about all the stories, and all the points of contact. In this case, a piece of pottery has had right? Not just its maker, not just the maker's family, not just the community. But even all the different people that have come across this pot and all maybe the different museums it's been at all the different people that have visited it. Like how many stories is that?"

Poon hopes visitors to the exhibit will help those stories continue.

"Every person that is going to come to a piece of pottery is going to have a different experience, right? Because you come with your own individual experiences, and that adds to the story of that pot as well. I think something that's really important is to be able to make that connection, that you don't have to be Pueblo, to understand that objects or belongings carry stories. And I think understanding that the things that you see in museums really transforms the way you look at the world."

Grounded in Clay opens July 31st at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. It will be traveling to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2023 and then travel to other cities in the future.

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