In March 2023, I had the opportunity to travel to Albuquerque, New Mexico for the first time. During my visit, one of my favorite activities was going to the museums, specifically the Albuquerque Museum. When I was driving to the museum, I found myself surrounded by pueblos with artwork painted on the side, ranches with cattle, and snowcap mountains in the distance. I knew I was traveling on historical land out west, but I wanted to learn more. Who used to inhabit these lands, live in the pueblos, and run the ranches?
At the Albuquerque Museum, I spent most of my time in Gallery 4 Common Ground: The Art of New Mexico. There was a variety of historical artwork depicting Native American culture and land within New Mexico throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. I read how the gallery wanted to reveal the natural world of New Mexico through visual culture “incorporating designs and motifs that reflect the landscape and the connectivity between humans, culture, and all life on the land.” The artwork I came across was mostly oil on canvases showcasing a variety of Native American men, women, and children. After looking at a collection of paintings such as Pueblo Girl (Juanita), Indian by Firelight, The Pipe Maker, Pueblo Indian Woman of Taos, and Star Road and White Sun, I realized they all represent Native American culture from the clothing worn, the facial expressions, and the surrounding landscape. Through the artwork, I was staring at the Native Americans who are classified as the original New Mexicans. All five paintings in Gallery 4 were completed between the years 1920 and 1934. In addition, they were all painted by male artists, who had an eye for the Puebloan people belonging to Taos Pueblo. Yet, all five artists had a different way of representing Native American men, women, and children.
Artists Emil Bisttram and Oscar E. Beringhaus focus on the clothing and setting of women and young girls in Taos Pueblo. Looking at Pueblo Girl (Juanita), Bisttram has painted a young Puebloan girl wearing a pink dress with a blue shawl and sitting on a bench inside an adobe home. The museum excerpt reads and acknowledges, “the way the artist reduced details to reveal the underlying geometric forms of clothing, the face, and the setting.” Bisttram has purposely centered the young girl in the middle of the painting. He wanted the audience to focus on her as a girl from Taos Pueblo with her clothing and the background inside an adobe home. Similarly in Pueblo Indian Woman of Taos, Beringhaus has painted a tall and slender Puebloan woman wearing a black shawl leaning up on a white horse in a field with mountains and trees in the background. Interestingly, I learned Beringhaus was known for using models for his work. So, the woman in the painting is a portrait of Marina Martinez, who was a friend of Beringhaus. Regardless of who the Puebloan girl and woman are, the focus is their culture and the landscape surrounding them.
Meanwhile, artists Joseph Henry Sharp and Eanger Irving Couse paint Puebloan men inside adobe homes by firelight. Within the frame of the paintings, I noticed both artists focused on the men and the firelight adjacent to one another. In Indian by Firelight, a Puebloan man is sitting down and looking at a fire that can’t be seen. Rather, the closer I looked, I saw how the light shines on the man revealing his face, braids, and arms. Sharp was a deaf Taos artist, and his goal was to create “the illusion of warm, honey-like firelight flooding an adobe room, generating a palpable mood of ceremonial intimacy.” I took away how he was acknowledging domestic and ritual scenes, increasing the emotional impact on his audience. However, Couse had a similar yet different approach in The Pipe Maker. He has a Puebloan man crouching down by a fire, making a pipe. Although the fire isn’t visible, there’s smoke emerging between the pots and the light shines on the man. Apparently, Couse “idealized images that reinforced stereotypes of the Southwest.” Stereotypes being how the man is dressed from the feather in his hair, his braids that hang down, and his palmetto pants and shoes. Hence, Sharp and Couse both share a representation of diversity, culture, and stereotypes in their works.
Lastly, there’s Star Road and White Sun. I am mentioning this painting last and separately because it addresses a different topic: assimilation. Unlike the other paintings, artist Ernest L. Blumenschein presents two Native men walking in the woods. Instead of focusing on the landscape, Blumenschein wanted his audience to focus on the two men, who are Star Road, an actual friend of Blumenschein, and White Star. The closer I looked, Star Road, being younger, is seen wearing non-traditional Puebloan clothing. This is a representation of assimilation that took place during the twentieth century. The goal behind such an atrocity was to “kill the Indian,” so Native American children were taken from their families and sent to Carlisle Indian Industrial School. According to the museum’s excerpt, Star Road and White Sun are “serious, determined, and defiant, both figures gaze at the viewer as if to challenge the way in which Native American culture and issues are perceived.” For Blumenschein, he wanted to incorporate complexity and issues Native Americans faced within this painting to bring awareness. Thus, making Star Road and White Sun “one of his most important paintings.”
As I left the Albuquerque Museum, I couldn’t help but feel deeply moved by the Puebloan people who inhabited this land. They’re the real New Mexicans. The artwork of the Puebloan people and their culture, thanks to the amazing artists at the museum, was a huge eye-opener for me. It gave me insight into the people who cultivated the New Mexico we know today. I find it essential to know and understand that New Mexico is a melting pot of diversity. Yes, the landscape, the culture, and the people make up New Mexico, but so do the atrocities and deep traumas such as assimilation.
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