SANTA FE, N. Mex. — “Grounded in Clay does exactly what it’s supposed to do. Ground us in our pursuit of creation,” explains Santiago Romero (Cochiti/Taos/Santa Ana). With tribal and family participation in the exhibition’s curation, Romero lectured and demonstrated “Painted Reflections: Isomeric Design in Ancestral Pueblo Pottery” at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, as part of the show’s ongoing programming. I met him and his cousin, Povi Romero, which led to a shared meal, laughs, and storytelling. Director of the Indian Arts Research Center (IARC) Elysia Poon claimed there is a “serendipitous nature” to this exhibition, which I can attest to.
Organized by the School for Advanced Research (SAR) and the Vilcek Foundation, along with over 60 curators and 21 tribal communities represented, Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery paves the way for equitable collaborative possibilities between museums and communities. The exhibition, on view through May 29 then traveling to New York, Houston, and St. Louis, explores the themes of utility, elements, connections through time and space, and ancestors. Speaking to community members, artists, and staff from SAR, one thing is evident through showcasing Pueblo Pottery: The exhibition centers relationships.
Many people have been in museum spaces that include pottery, but this exhibition generates a different experience. When I first heard there were over 60 curators, I was excited to see what that looked like, however, I was most taken by what it felt like. There is a collective presence within the exhibition space, a sort of reverberation and dialogue between the clay and community. These aren’t just objects exhibited with identifying nameplates and dates. Grounded in Clay communicates community histories and experiences through poetics and dialogue. I found out, not surprisingly, that generating this collective dialogue between pots and people is achieved with a lot of intentional labor and love.
So how did the IARC, a non-exhibiting institution with items from centuries ago through the present, generate such an innovative and equitable museum collaboration and experience with pots? Poon explained how this project took an approach that didn’t define the terms upfront, and instead drew from the more than decade-long intentional relationship building within Indigenous communities and allowed community members to speak from their own experiences and knowledge.
When I sat down to talk with Poon, I was most invested in the “how”: How does an expansive collaborative exhibit, like Grounded in Clay, come to be? First, however, it’s important to ask how and why Indigenous collections like these exist. Over 100 years ago, the Pueblo Potter Fund (now referred to as IARC) was formed with the intention to “help” the Pueblo community retain and preserve history and culture. Thus, the collection gets started with the false assumptions and framework that Indigenous communities can’t “save” their own culture.
Today, IARC has grown to include over 12,000 items of Native Southwest art and history. The research collection primarily serves artists, scholars, families, and the public, including tourists. Poon shared that there has been a critical examination and reflection of the institutional responsibility and role as stewards of this collection. Specifically, within recent decades and leadership, IARC’s aim of what preserving and maintaining culture looks like and how it is practiced has attempted to radically shift processes and priorities to reestablish and recenter community relationships and needs.
“We realized in order to facilitate change we needed to help set an example,” explains Poon, and Grounded in Clay allowed for ideas and desires for change to be put into practice. The exhibition showcases their two main objectives coming together — collaboration guidelines and the process of community participation. The SAR/IARC is aimed at undoing hierarchical practices, and they have developed “Guidelines for Collaboration.” These guidelines, paired with a commitment to community telling their own stories, prompted the IARC to be inclusive and expansive with their reimagining of the role of a singular “curator,” to the expansive collective community process and participation of over 21 tribes. Grounded in Clay also allowed Indigenous people to assert their own knowledge; the exhibition “creates space for Indigenous intellect,” says Dr. Joseph Aguilar (San Ildefonso), a member of the Pueblo Pottery Collective.
The organizing of the show began in 2019, with outreach at Indian Market and other cultural programs and events. “How we ended up with the 60 [curators] that we ended up with was both somewhat directed and organic,” Poon said, explaining how community members asked and recruited within their own communities to participate. After establishing the 60 curators, the first meeting together was scheduled for March 2020. COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders meant reimagining the organizing process and logistics for a show of this size.
Grounded in Clay did not define what the exhibition’s goals or ideas were; instead, it provided for the curators to have autonomy and agency. Each curator visited the collection, selected one to two pieces, and then each curator wrote about their selections for the catalogue. There was no required prompt, rather each curator was able to write and share on their own terms. These written entries ranged from poetic expression to personal experiences to traditional storytelling. For example, Rose B. Simpson (Santa Clara) wrote an expository expression to an “Ancestral Puebloan Jar” (c. 1050–1300), and Dr. Christina M. Castro (Taos, Jemez, Chicana) spoke to the feminine curvature and corn motifs from Juanita Fragua’s jar (1900). Jade Begay (Tay tsu’gen Oweenge/Tesuque, Diné) selected two pieces, a bowl (c. 1925–30) by Maria (Poveka) and Julian Martinez (San Ildefonso) and a rain god figure (c. 2000) from Ignacia Duran (Tesuque). She concludes her entry with a list of questions inspired by both pieces, “How long will we be able to continue working with clay? Do our rain gods, who evoke joy, and Avanyu, who urges us to show reverence, have something to teach us during this time? Is the call to action simply one to connect more with our precious clay while we still can?”
Poon explained that after everyone shared their selections and writing, the themes of the exhibition surfaced. Each tribe, family, and individual has their own relationship to pottery. Each curator was able to share their specific relationships, stories, and knowledge, and then, after collecting everyone’s writing entry, collectively stand back to reflect on commonalities.
The four themes that emerged were utility, elements, connections through time and space, and ancestors. Each selected piece embodies all of these themes. Just as ceramics rely on the interconnectedness of fire, water, air, and earth, the craft also relies on the interconnectedness of community, such as the hands to sculpt and the skills learned with time, space, and ancestors.
The exhibition put the “Guidelines for Collaboration” into practice, publicly. Further, Grounded in Clay illustrates for museums and institutions a model of Native and non-Native collaboration, which supports, funds, and elevates Indigenous communities telling their own stories on their terms. The show also illustrates how these Pueblo pots carry spirit and story — and, as vessels, how they communicate and are in dialogue with their communities.