Patsy, a Summer Intern at the Tucson Museum of Art, wrote a blog entry about her experience at TMA.
Thank you, Patsy, for your hard work this summer!
Growing up in rural Vermont, my familiarity with Native Americans was next to none. We spent maybe one class period in American history on the first Thanksgiving and another on the Trail of Tears. It didn’t hurt that New England is overwhelmingly homogeneous - I don’t think I ever met a real Native American person growing up. Sure, I got the gist that they suffered a great injustice in the past - but it was never at the forefront of my concerns; this due mostly to my white privilege that gave me the luxury of being ignorant. In college, finally getting out of New England, my small-town naïveté was quickly demolished. Through taking history and race relations classes, meeting people of these different races and having the time and place to discuss this new information with my peers, I began to learn what to me was a unequivocal truth that multiple forces throughout my childhood had strove tirelessly to keep from me - the existence and incredibly relevant history of Native Americans. Most blatantly it made clear the role my early education played in this concealment: integral moments in our nation’s history had simply been left out of the day’s history lesson. Why, I asked myself, was I taught about the Battle of Gettysburg and not the Sand Creek Massacre? The Greensboro Sit-In and not the Occupation of Wounded Knee? Why was I taught about great leaders like Lincoln and not Red Cloud? General Sherman and not Geronimo? All are essential to who we are as a country. Why this information is left out of grade school curriculums and the institutionalized racism that dictates our education system is a topic for another blog post, but needless to say, my interest was peaked. I began a sort of personal project to become more informed about the indigenous people of this country, past and present, to better understand the land I live on, my place in the world, and to make up for all the years I spent in the dark.
My internship here at the Tucson Museum of Art has given me a chance to continue this project, but this time through a medium much more powerful and inspiring than history books: art. Art is a product of culture, indicative of the people and time that it came from. Through examining art you can get a view of a culture that you can’t get from a book – you learn about what was going on in the minds of the people living at the time. Art is intimate in that way, and that’s why I devoted my undergraduate career to studying it.
A recent project here at the Museum has enabled me to learn, through art, about a specific Native American culture, the Hopi. I was assigned the task of researching a group of kachina dolls, known to the Hopi as tihu, in the museum’s collection. Tihu are wooden carvings of katsinam, the deities/spirits of the Hopi religion. These “dolls” are given to young girls and boys of the tribe to teach them the different names and purposes of each katsina, an important task as there are over 300 katsinam in the Hopi pantheon. I tracked down information on the artist of each tihu, the katsina it represented, and the time period in which it was made. Over the course of the many hours I spent observing this art form of the Hopi, my understanding of them as a people has broadened enormously, and in ways I don’t think would have been possible with a book. For example, seeing each meticulously delineated fingernail and strand of hair on the tihu enlightened me to the sensitive and ceaselessly patient nature of Hopi hands. The jovial, humorous expressions carved onto the faces of the clown tihu that give them such joyous presence and individual personality is telling of the importance of humor in Hopi society, and the carver’s familiarity with and reverence for it. Most Hopi tihu today are made for the tourist market and differ significantly from traditional tihu, adapted to please the consumer. Some see this as revealing of the financial situations of many Hopi, and the fact that they would market their tribe’s sacred objects just to make a buck. However, I like to think of it as showing the progressive artistic nature of the Hopi: they are adapting and elaborating upon a traditional art form in an attempt to make Hopi art viable and respected in the modern art world.
The small things like this that I’ve learned about the Hopi in this project are unique and invaluable to me, but my no means is my education on the Hopi complete. The tihu provided merely a jumping off point, to this culture but also to the other indigenous cultures of the Southwest. After living in this area of the world for two months and working on these projects, my interest in these people has increased. I believe the Southwest will be in my future, one way or another. This project has also really proved the usefulness of art in this quest of mine. I think art has value for everyone regardless of their own personal projects. Through art, the ignorance of at least one small town girl has begun to be eradicated, and I believe it has the power to have that effect on many.
My internship here at the Tucson Museum of Art has not only helped me with this project of mine and developed my knowledge of Native Americans, but it has also taught me many other valuable things. I now have an understanding of the inner workings of a museum and how the different departments work together to make the exhibitions we see. My perception of the job of a curator has also changed – before, I thought it was a glamorous job, but now I understand it is all extensive research and exhaustive planning. Besides kachina dolls, during my projects I learned about photographer Fritz Kaeser, the artists of western dime novels and pulp magazines, and modern Pop artists who were inspired by the West. I am excited to put all this new knowledge and experience to use out in the real world.