Sunday, January 14, 2018

Lifeways of the Southern Athabaskans

The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe opened an exhibition last month,  “Lifeways of the Southern Athabaskans”.  What is Athabaskan? Well you may ask. According to the dictionary it is “a family of languages spoken by American Indians in most of inland northwest Canada and Alaska, in coastal Oregon and California, and in Arizona and the Rio Grande basin, and including especially Navajo, Apache, and Chipewyan.”

This exhibition focuses on the Apache. There are 5 different main tribes with a number of Bands in each.  The five tribes are the Jicarilla, the Mescalero, the Chiricahua, the San Carlos and White Mountain. In the movies the Apache have often been represented as a single warlike tribe lead by Geronimo (1829-1909).  The Mescalero-Chiricahua, the warrior and medicine man led bands of Indians on numerous raids during a prolonged period in what he probably saw as protecting the lands of his people which were being settled by the Anglos after the United States’ war with Mexico.

The curator of the exhibition is Joyce Begay-Foss (Diné, known in the Anglo world as Navajo).  She is Director of Education at he museum and she wanted to call attention to the Apache because she felt that visitors to the museum might only be acquainted with a few of the Pueblos and not the Apache.  The show gives an across the board view of how the Apache lived and the utilitarian objects that they made.  Each of the tribes was different and approached the creation of these objects differently. 

Ms. Begay-Foss approaches her subject in a very ethnographic manner with the accent more on material culture and less on art though I would venture that many of works in the show reach the qualitative term, art. As an aside students  have traditionally been taught that there are the Fine Arts, paintings, drawings and sculpture and everything else is decorative arts, which in my opinion is a pejorative term.  Not as bad, of course, as at my Alma Mater, Columbia University, where there was a file cabinet outside of the library labeled, “The Minor Arts”.  In medieval times, however, there was just art, with no such distinction.

The Apache lived a migratory lifestyle, moving around from hill to dale seeking food and good hunting.  They camped in tipis that could be easily taken down, transported and put up in the next place. Here is a photo of the Mescalero Apache tipis in New Mexico taken around 1906 by R.H. Robinson.

Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors, Photo Archives

I will illustrate a few objects but there are so many that you really need to see the exhibition for yourselves to fully appreciate its scope.  Happily the show will be up into July of 2019 so you can put it on your calendars for when you will be in the neighborhood.

The most impressive work in the exhibition is a huge buffalo hide painted to record in abstract terms the early homelands of the Jicarilla.  The U.S. government had not yet set boundaries for tribal lands and as a nomadic people they had no sense of their specific land but roamed the Southwest freely.  Of course, there were natural boundaries, rivers, sacred mountains, lakes plains and other natural markers.  Each band could define their territory using these landmarks.


The primary weapon used for hunting was the bow and arrow and here is a Chiricahua Quiver (ca. 1886), which held the arrows. The colorful stars that decorate the brain tanned leather and the red flannel wool are made of tiny glass seed beads.

Photo by Addison Doty. Courtesy Museum of Indian Arts and Culture

For any group of people procreation is vital to continuation of the species and therefore we protect our children and teach them so that life can continue.  In the Apache tribes the children become aware of their identity as male and female through their language, education and cultural values which seems no different from most other worlds except I was not carried around on my mothers back on a cradleboard.  Dolls and tiny cradle boards helped to teach children how to take care of their siblings.  The style of clothing and moccasins a child wore were changed according to their age and amulets were attached to their garments for protection.  The same as we see St. Christopher medals hanging from the rear view mirror in many cars.


This Jicarilla elaborately contoured and beaded buckskin cape was made for the ceremony of a girl’s passage to womanhood. The dangling shells are amulets. Late 19th early 20th century.

Photo Courtesy Museum of Indian Arts and Culture

There is no catalog for the show but many books on the subject of the Apache.  I asked Ms. Begay-Foss, if forced, could she pick a single book to cover the subject and she suggested “Apache” by Thomas E. Mails.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Kota Ezawa, The Crime of Art

Site Santa Fe, our renowned Kunsthalle has been recently enlarged and has had an overall renovation as well. Before you reach the main exhibition galleries there is a curated shop with design pieces opposite a pair of smaller galleries called the SITElab where the exhibition Koto Ezawa, The Crime of Art is installed.

As indicated by the title, this is a solo exhibition based on famous art thefts.  All the works are new or recently done. As I have at home a shelf of books on art crime, the title of this show caught my attention.


Ezawa pays tribute to the  stolen works of art with transparencies placed in light boxes.
His series devoted the 1990 theft of the Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Degas among others  from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum starts the exhibition. The case has not been solved in almost 30 years. Every once in a while we seen a blurb in the news that they have another clue but these lead nowhere!

The show is not limited to the Gardner theft.  Another series of images refers to the famous theft of the Edvard Munch’s, “The Scream” from Oslo’s National Museum.  This picture was recovered in Norway after a two- year search.  There was another painting stolen as well and tree men were eventually convicted of the crime.  In this lightbox transparency you can see two men carrying paintings and the third opening the back of the wagon to put them in.


Ezawa is a Japanese-German artist who was born in 1969 in Cologne, Germany.  He currently lives near San Francisco and is Associate Professor of Fine Arts and Film at the California College of the Arts.  His work has been shown in many major museums in this country as well as in Canada, London, Paris and Germany.

A press release from the Haine’s Gallery in San Francisco defined Ezawa’s work very clearly, “Kota Ezawa’s work explores the appropriation and mediation of current events and images.”

The artist himself  states that this series, “draws upon painting only to recognize that painters before 1850, like Rembrandt and Vermeer, were essentially the photographers of their time. In the absence of photographs, their paintings take on the task of recording reality with the scrutiny and minuteness that we now expect from cameras. ….I feel compelled to produce an exhibition dealing with ‘stolen art works’ because my own process could be regarded as a form of image theft. One could say I’m hoping to steal these images back and give them a new life.”

What wonderful self-awareness! I too had the reaction to the work that it was copying though it certainly was not identical replication .  It is the theft of thought and who owns art?  It is always open to interpretation and what we call appropriation.  This has become a serious contemporary legal issue involving copyright law.   The Tate Gallery in London defined artistic appropriation as, “the more or less direct taking over of a work of art, a real object or even an existing work of art.”  I doubt very much that Rembrandt or Manet are going to go after Ezawa, however!

But when you compare Ezawa’s transparency with an original painting you see that he has not copied but simplified in a way like Cézanne simplified form and started cubism and abstraction almost at the same time!  Here, for instance, is his version of Manet’s “Chez Tortoni" together with the original.



Again in Ezawa’s appropriation of Rembrandt’s “Storm in the Sea of Galilee” it’s starkness derives from very flat colors and stylized form.



The video that goes along with the exhibition is marvelous exposition.  It shows among other aspects of art crime the helicopter coming down on the roof  of the museum and guards scrambling in the famous Topkapi heist; as so often happens they are too late!  I have included a small portion of the artist’s video.  In Google you will find many others.



I apologize for having  “discovered” this show at such a late date so you only have a couple of days to see it in Santa Fe live but a beautifully produced book with the same title has images from this show and a lot more.  A version of the show will go on to the Christopher Grimes Gallery in Santa Monica, California.