DALLAS — The centerpiece of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Hopi Visions: Journey of the Human Spirit is a massive, interconnected six-panel mural by Hopi artists Michael Kabotie and Delbridge Honanie, that narrates a history of the Hopi people. Stepping into the exhibit’s room, my eyes focused on the middle panel first, before traveling to the left to “read” the work, as if it were a row of text. Watching others go through the exhibit’s centerpiece was like watching an Roscharch inkblot test. Did they read it left to right? Or wander from panel to panel? A couple of kids ping-ponged between motifs. Some visitors simply sat on the seats in the middle of the room and let the painting wrap around them, occasionally moving their head from side to side to take in a different detail.
This exhibit is the first time the work has traveled outside of Arizona where it hangs in the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. In addition to the mural, the exhibit contains several katsina (kachina dolls), as well as ancient and contemporary ceramics from the greater Hopi region of the Southwest. Within the Hopi religion, katsinas are protective spirits that live in northern Arizona, on the San Francisco Peaks. Hopi dancers dress to impersonate the spirits and perform ceremonial dances several times a year; katsina dolls are carved representations of the Hopi katsina dancers.
The mural Journey of the Human Spirit is, itself, nearly five feet tall and forty-eight feet long, with six distinct but interconnected panels. Completed in 2001, specifically for the Museum of Northern Arizona, it feels fitting that a piece about historical journeys would serve as an ambassador and inspiration for current Dallas Museum visitors. The panels narrate the history of the Hopi people, from mythic beginnings, through to the arrival of Europeans and Christianity, as depicted in the Pueblo Revolt, to the rebirth and reintroduction of Hopi art and traditions in contemporary society. In the Dallas, the mural offers visitors a chance to see the interconnectedness of Hopi history, in ways that viewing isolated artifacts just doesn’t.
“We are honored to work with the Museum of Northern Arizona to bring to Dallas this impressive, expansive, and beautiful mural depicting the history of the Hopi people,” said the DMA Eugene McDermott Director Dr. Agustín Arteaga in an interview with ArtFIX Daily. “Much like the works of art on view, we hope to convey Hopi values to non-Hopi audiences through this exhibition, and to express Hopi heritage and culture to all.”
As part of the research and preparation for their piece, Kabotie and Honanie studied ancient Ancestral Puebloan wall paintings dating to the 15th and 16th century sites of Awat’ovi and Kawayka’a on the Hopi Mesas in northeastern Arizona, as well as the Pottery Mound site in New Mexico. The exhibit incorporated ceramics, colors, and symbols from ancient Chaco, Mimbres, and Ancestral Pueblo cultures, grounding Hopi history in its broader, deeper historical narrative.
One of the most interesting depictions in the mural was of Pueblo Bonito from Chaco Canyon. From an aerial perspective, the ancient pueblo looks “D” —shaped with a straight edge, a curved perimeter wall, and a plethora of interior rooms and kivas. In southwestern archaeology, the birds-eye view of this structure is iconic. By including Pueblo Bonito as only an archaeological map, Kabotie and Honanie cue audiences to notice how easy and problematic it is for indigenous history to be reduced to maps and symbols. The first panel is a powerful reminder about the power and representation of how history is depicted and told.
Although the Journey of the Human Spirit is the focus on the exhibit, other contemporary and ancient artifacts contextualize the deep communal history of the Four Corners area. Hopi Visions walks viewers through several specific symbols that appear as motifs in ceramics and murals. Indeed, from flowers to feathers to geometric designs, the exhibit makes the point that certain motifs have endured for centuries. Several of the ceramic bowls in Hopi Visions were iconic examples of the region’s art.
In many archaeology and anthropology museums, artifacts are simply labeled with a provenience and discovery — effectively distancing the art from its artist. Finding individuals in the archaeology record is difficult, such logic goes, and is impossible to properly credit work to a particular artist. It would be easy to have these ceramic vessels begin to simply fill in as “types” and nothing more. However, in this instance, on every ancient piece of pottery, the exhibit displayed a tag “unrecorded Ancestral Pueblo artist(s).” The acknowledgement that every one of these ancient ceramics was created by an unknown artist was a powerful way to emphasize to visitors that, although it is often difficult to find individuals in the archaeological record, it doesn’t mean that we ought not acknowledge that they were there.