San Francisco

Southwest Indian Arts

California Palace of the Legion of Honor

It is a pity that the exhibition of Southwest Indian Arts at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor was not scheduled for late summer showing, to run at least partly concurrently with the penetrating survey of Northwest Indian Art which closed in October at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. What a magnificent sweep of North American ethnic arts they would have presented!

This exhibition, planned as a following one to the enormously successful show of Indian works the Legion presented in 1958, is drawn from the same area. It is, however, less oriented to history. Most of the 700 or so items, while traditional in concept, are of quite recent make. Each one was carefully selected by Howard Ross Smith, Associate Director of the Legion and a special connoisseur of Southwest Indian Arts, yet one discerns a gradual yielding of the traditional crafts to the demands and facilities of the twentieth century.

It is apparent that the traditional crafts of the Indians will continue to be produced only as long as the Indian cultures themselves exist. As the cultures change, and change they will, so too will their expressions change. While it is customary to lament the passing of the old, one should accept this change philosophically because true arts and crafts are obliged to reflect their times. And the work of some of the younger artisans exhibiting here would indicate that the artistic future of the Indian can be as rich as his past. It will, however, be different. One hopes it will be more financially gainful, for, as with other Americans, few artist-craftsmen on the reservation live entirely from the earnings of their workshops.

Because of their seeming similarity of pattern and color to the hard-edge abstractions of today, the rugs in this show attract by far the widest attention. Most of them are Navajo, and in them one realizes the conflict between commerce and the arts. The Navajo is a Johnny-come-lately among weavers. He learned the craft from the men of the neighboring Pueblo tribes, transferred it from a man’s to a woman’s domain, and soon turned out rugs that are admittedly among the best in the world. The development of their patterns, the experimentation necessary in transition from blanket-making to rug-making as commercially made goods were introduced, the revival of vegetable dyes to replace the garish “store bought” ones that had vulgarized their work for a time, all have taken considerable time.

Yet the casual visitor seldom realizes the hours of labor and accumulation of experiences involved in the making of a rug, from the time the wool is first clipped from the sheep to the finished product on the floor. A 3 by 5 foot rug of average quality requires about 350 hours of work, and the time increases proportionately with the fineness of the yarn and the weave. He also fails to realize that all Indians are not artists and that weavers are something special among them since they carry the patterns in their heads and use no visual guides to design. Fortunately, an increasing amount of literature is being devoted to this subject as interest in the survival of native crafts mounts.

Second in interest in this show, especially among the artists, is the small but exquisite selection of Hopi Kachina dolls those colorful and fascinating little fellows who may represent, variously, supernatural beings, male dancers who impersonate the deities, or masked male dancers. It is in his expression that one sees the possible connection, however remote, with tribes to the far North and the far South.

––E. M. Polley