The next stop on our road trip was Flagstaff, Arizona and the Museum of Northern Arizona. It is one of the most important museums for Indians of the Southwest. It sits at a virtual crossroads of the Navajo, Zuni and Hopi. Every year
the museum does a fair for
each of the tribes individually.
The feature exhibition that I had especially wanted to see was “Nampeyo: Namingha - Tradition & Transition.” Last summer, we were invited by the director of the Museum of Northern Arizona, Robert Breunig, to come to a reception at the home of Philip M. Smith in Santa Fe. He collected works of art by Dan Namingha a painter and his sons, Arlo a sculptor and Michael a photographer. Dan’s great great grandmother was the most famous Hopi potter of all time known as Nampeyo. Many of her descendants are also well thought of potters. It therefore made sense to collect their work as well.
Iris Nampeyo (ca. 1860–1942), known simply as Nampeyo was responsible for the revival of the style of pottery excavated by the archeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes in 1895 at Sikyátki, a site that had been occupied by the Hopi from the 14th through the 17th centuries. Nampeyo grew up at Hopi on First Mesa in the Tewa Village. In her own words, “When I first began to paint, I used to go to the ancient village and pick up pieces of pottery and copy the designs. That is how I learned to paint. But now, I just close my eyes and see designs and I paint them.” This is one of her Sikyátki revival jars, circa 1910 from the collection of the Museum of Northern Arizona.
In addition to the restaurants and hotels that Frederick Henry Harvey (1835–1901) developed along the railroad lines the Harvey Company promoted “Indian Detours” to teach the Eastern tourist about the Native Americans of the Southwest and built Hopi House at the Grand Canyon. Here Nampeyo demonstrated and sold her works in 1905 and 1907, slowly but surely becoming the first celebrity Indian potter.
The exhibition at the Museum of Northern Arizona shows the tradition of her
family and their transition to the
contemporary world. The exhibition was in
honor of a large donation that Philip M. Smith was making to the Museum of
Northern Arizona as part of an eventual bequest. Most of the exhibits are from Mr. Smith’s
collection. Although Mr. Smith attended
the opening, he passed away shortly after, and the Museum will receive more of his
collection sooner than expected.
As usual, I have picked a few favorite pieces from the 44 works in the show, one by each artist. This is one of my favorite Native American forms, the Wedding Vase by Nampeyo’s great-grand daughter Dextra Quotskuyva, circa 1980, from the collection of Arlo and Nicole Namingha.
Dan Namingha, who is Dextra’s son, uses Hopi design but paints more abstract images. Here is one called “Desert Moon”, 2006, from the Phillip M. Smith collection.
Native photography is fairly new in that the little we left the Native Americans with, they were not eager to share. They do not permit outsiders to photograph their villages and ceremonies but we are beginning to see photography by Indians with images
that relate in non-obvious ways to the native experience. Michael Namingha’s photos are think pieces where you can guess
what the artist had in mind or just make up your own story. I love this called
“What Was What Could be (Voyeur)”, 2012, Museum of Northern Arizona.
One of the most effective works in the show is a sculpture by Arlo Namingha called “Sandhills”, 2008, Philip M. Smith collection, which captures the desert mesas and the life circle behind the walls of Hopi villages.
Why did Philip Smith leave his collection to a museum in Flagstaff instead of one in Santa Fe where he lived? I can only surmise that it was because he knew the director and saw for himself what a good job he did. Flagstaff is also close to the spiritual heart of Hopi, as in the Hopi religion the San Francisco peaks, that dominate the town, are home to the Katsina Spirits that bring blessings to the people. What more appropriate place to celebrate the artistic blessing of a Hopi family.