New collection presentation at the Colby College Museum of Art centers Indigenous perspectives on the American Southwest

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New collection presentation at the Colby College Museum of Art centers Indigenous perspectives on the American Southwest
Ernest Blumenschein (American, 1874–1960), Girl in Rose, 1926. Oil on canvas, 30 ¼ x 25 in. The Lunder Collection, 2013.019P.

WATERVILLE, MAINE.- More than three years in the making, and with the support of a wide community of collaborators, Colby College Museum of Art is presenting Painted: Our Bodies, Hearts, and Village (May 19, 2023–July 28, 2024), a collection installation centering Pueblo perspectives on the context that informed the social and cultural landscape of Taos from 1915 to 1927, when the Taos Society of Artists (TSA), a group of Anglo-American painters, was active. It also sheds light on issues that affect Native people today, in the Southwest and beyond.

The exhibition features paintings by TSA artists from the Lunder Collection– which is widely recognized as one of the most important collections of American art ever assembled by private hands–in dialogue with works by twentieth- and twenty-first-century Native American artists, including new acquisitions, to illuminate the varied, complex, and rich art histories of the United States Southwest, in particular the city of Taos and Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. Presented in six galleries spanning the lower level of the museum’s Lunder Wing, this collection installation will also include writing, sound, and artworks from the featured artists and other Native culture bearers as part of new research initiated by the museum’s Lunder Institute for American Art, which was established in 2017.

In keeping with its long-term commitment to furthering collaborative methodologies, the Colby Museum is integrating and centering input from Native community partners throughout the project. The reinstallation’s co-curators are 2021–22 Lunder Institute research fellows Juan Lucero (Isleta Pueblo) and Jill Ahlberg Yohe, who worked in collaboration with Siera Hyte, the Colby Museum’s assistant curator of modern and contemporary art. Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo) is the project’s exhibition designer. A curatorial advisory council made up of Pueblo and Wabanaki artists and stakeholders provided essential guidance on the installation and its interpretative elements. The council members are Ron Martinez Looking Elk (Isleta Pueblo/Taos Pueblo), Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), Theresa Secord (Penobscot), Sarah Sockbeson (Penobscot), and Dr. Joseph Suina (Cochiti Pueblo). Through this project, and specifically through the advisory council, the museum seeks to facilitate opportunities for intertribal dialogue between Wabanaki and Pueblo communities.

“The Lunder Collection’s great strengths in art of the southwest United States, and especially paintings by Taos Society of Art artists, offered an unparalleled opportunity to open a new path in American art history,” said Jacqueline Terrassa, Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby Museum.

“We were fortunate to partner with extraordinary artists, culture bearers, and experts of many backgrounds to inform this project. Painted: Our Bodies, Hearts and Village moves away from singular interpretations about representation and creativity related to the region and the Indigenous people for whom those lands are home, and instead opens multifaceted avenues for exploration, dialogue, and reflection about American histories and experiences.”

For centuries, Pueblo makers have innovated with clay and other materials. This creative inheritance has been passed down through the generations in an unbroken artistic lineage. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Pueblo artists made revolutionary advances in ceramics and developed new techniques that connected Indigenous painting traditions, symbols, and forms with Modernist painting. During this same time period, the construction of the Santa Fe Railroad brought Anglo-American settlers to the Southwest in greater numbers. Taos Pueblo, long a vibrant center for intertribal trade, quickly attracted the interest of these newly arrived settlers. Drawn to the region in pursuit of what they described as uniquely American subjects—distinct from European artistic traditions—the founding members of the TSA traveled to Pueblo homelands and encountered this thriving artistic world with a rich tradition of commerce and exchange. The TSA artists painted their impressions of Taos Pueblo and Pueblo people, their works reflecting a complex network of relationships between the artists and their chosen subject matter.

During their lifetimes, the TSA garnered varying degrees of professional success and scholarly attention, though they were largely overlooked by most museums and art historians outside of the US Southwest. American art institutions gradually incorporated their work into presentations of American art history that promoted a generalized and idealized conception of Native America. More recently, scholars studying the TSA have focused primarily on the artists themselves, sometimes for broader art historical and cultural critiques of romanticism and the Southwest as a place to fortify ideas of a then growing nation state.

Painted: Our Bodies, Hearts, and Village includes these critiques as an important element for understanding how the TSA’s output has traditionally been exhibited, but goes beyond that framework, positioning Taos people as empowered agents within their own lives and own portraits. By centering Pueblo perspectives and worldviews, the exhibition enfolds the Lunder Collection’s TSA paintings into a much longer story about Taos Pueblo. Though their representations came from an outside perspective, the TSA paintings illustrate the central role of Taos Pueblo and its people in trade relations—economic, diplomatic, artistic—within the United States. The TSA paintings are one entry point into the longstanding artistic exchanges that happened in the history of Taos, and were only possible through Taos Pueblo being the hub of exchange for millennia.

“This exhibit highlights our ability as Pueblo people to interpret our own histories, cultures, and art practice. It serves as an avenue to reinterpret and decolonize the identities created by non-Native settlers and establish presence for Pueblo ecologies, which have always been contemporary,” said Juan Lucero, exhibition co-curator.

Painted: Our Bodies, Hearts, and Village emphasizes the sovereignty of Pueblo peoples and the land they steward, inviting viewers to consider how art produced in the US Southwest reflects, or diverges from, the lived experiences of Native community members. The exhibition and its associated programs ask: What can be learned about self-representation, intertribal exchange, settler colonialism, and the causes of climate change by foregrounding Pueblo and other Native voices? And, relatedly, what enduring myths about Native people and Westward expansion might be unlearned through this multivocal approach?

"With this reinstallation, the museum asks visitors to reconsider what they may have previously learned about the US Southwest and the Taos Society of Artists. The project reorients visitors to these subjects through the lens of Pueblo and other Native artists and contributors, presenting an expansive narrative that foregrounds Native self-representation in the telling of American and Native American art histories," said Siera Hyte, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Colby Museum.

Artists represented in the project include Margeaux Abeyta, Mozart Abeyta, Tony Abeyta, Oscar Berninghaus, Ernest Blumenschein, Gerald Cassidy, Pop Chalee, Berdina Charley, E. Irving Couse, Herbert Dunton, Nicolai Fechin, Jody Naranjo Folwell, Susan Folwell, Jason Garcia, Jessa Rae Growing Thunder, Marsden Hartley, Ernest Martin Hennings, Seferina Herrera, Victor Higgins, Ahkima Honyumptewa, William Robinson Leigh, Albert Looking Elk, John Marin, Patricia Michaels, Robert Mirabal, Thomas Moran, Dan Namingha, Michael Namingha, Madeline Naranjo, Clara Neptune Keezer, Theresa Neptune Gardner, Molly Neptune Parker, Virgil Ortiz, Bert Geer Phillips, Juan Pino, Cara Romero, Diego Romero, Ken Romero, Yellowbird Samora, Mary Sanipass, Joseph Sharp, Sarah Sockbeson, Roxanne Swentzell, Awa Tsireh, and Walter Ufer.

"This path breaking reinstallation serves as a guidepost for the future of American and Native American art curation,” said exhibition co-curator Jill Ahlberg Yohe.

“By centering Pueblo perspectives in all phases of this project, the museum provides a new direction for the study and exhibition of the Taos Society of Artists. This approach offers visitors, and especially Colby students, a much richer, redemptive art historical practice.”

As part of the Colby Museum’s robust schedule of exhibition and projects, Painted: Our Bodies, Hearts, and Village invites visitors to explore the complex relationships between art history, art making, and the American experience. Advancing a notion of American art as pluralistic and open, this project builds upon a sustained effort to use the museum’s collection to present new narratives and to show how art, both historical and contemporary, can illuminate some of today’s most vital questions.

The installation will be accompanied by a series of public programs, including a symposium in fall 2023. A publication documenting the installation and including additional reflections, interviews, and research is also planned.

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