Rick Janssen on sun 26 may 96
The universe in bowlsful
Drawing on her Pueblo heritage, Swentzell looked into the Mimbres
bowls and saw a familiar universe. The classic Mimbres designs, made
between 1000 and 1500 A.D., are shallow bowls whose white interiors
are edged with narrow black bands or jagged linear designs. To
Swentzell, the white basins represents the valley and the dark edge,
the mountains surrounding it.
"That's the way we grew up thinking about the world," Swentzell
said. "You look around and the mountains really do contain you.
That's the world. It's the cosmos with sky-father covering the female
earth-bowl that we live in."
Like contemporary Pueblo Indians, the Mimbres apparently thought
of the cosmos as a divided sphere. The upper portion, in traditional
Pueblo thought, is identified with males and described as a kind of
basket. The lower portion is the mother who contains and shelters the
children. The two halves remain in constant balance.
"They're describing what's going on in their world, within that
lower, earthen bowl world," Swentzell said. "Our word for 'us,' for
'people,' is "nung." And the stuff of the earth, the clay that the
pot is made out of, is also "nung." It's not so different from the
[Judeo-Christian] notion of Adam coming from the Earth," she said.
The bowls, in her view, also depict the distinctive "balance and
complementarity," between men and women in Mimbres and Pueblo
cultures. "Modern American culture is all about the male world, and
the female is still a very disdained part of life," she said. "That's
another part that makes the Pueblo and Mimbres so very different."
Treated as paintings
The Weisman show's design is also unusual in treating the bowls
as if they were small, concave paintings. It was designed by John
Garrigan of Santa Fe, an Ojibwe-Irish-American originally from Red
Lake, Minnesota. He divided the show into three parts:
*An introductory room that includes background material on the
Mimbres people, their valley and the University of Minnesota's
archeological digs there.
*A gallery filled with Mimbres bowls and other artifacts.
*A background display including ceramics by contemporary
Pueblo artists Diego Romero and Nathan Begaye, whose work is
influenced by the Mimbres.
"I really felt the emphasis should be on the aesthetics of the
pottery, so we decided to separate the show...to allow you to focus
on the pottery without a lot of explanation," said Garrigan, a
graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design who has
designed shows for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and
Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Respect and misgivings
When the Mimbres placed bowls over the heads of their dead, they
usually knocked small holes in the bottoms of the pots. That makes
sense to Swentzell, who explains in the catalog: "In modern Pueblo
understanding, the bowl was punctured so its breath could flow back
into the cosmos."
Her ambivalence about displaying the bowls is linked to their
origins. Although many of them show wear from use by the Mimbres,
most were found in graves, next to or covering parts of the corpses,
usually the face.
"They may have contained food. There is such a tradition in the
Pueblo community," Swentzell said. "It's an acknowledgment that the
body takes time to transform back into the earth again. But we don't
have the notion of another world. We stay in this world. This is it.
What we do is tansform into the clouds, the earth, back into "nung"
Swentzell said she has "great respect for the people at the
museum," especially Brody and the museum director Lyndel King who,
she said, was unusually responsive when she and Brody began to
King arranged for the exhibition design and catalog (Hudson Hills
Press, New York) to reflect both their views. It weaves their
comments into a single essay but uses two differant typefaces so each
voice is identified.
Brody is sympathetic to Swentzell's concerns, but clings to
another viewpoint grounded in his Euro-American training and heritage
which values art as communication and is committed to the
preservation of beautiful objects as a legacy to future generations.
"I think she has an important point, one I'm not yet willing to
adopt for myself," Brody said in a recent interview. His own view is
that the Mimbres pots are simply too important a part of world
culture to be buried again.
"I don't want to think of it [Mimbres art and way of life] as
something we've lost. I want to think of it as a model for the
future," he said. "I want to think of art as something that expresses
shared value, as something that people do because they have something
they want to communicate to each other....
"I still see the transformation of this material in our lifetime
as having an importance that could never have been anticpated by
people so long ago."