WATERVILLE, Maine — An electric-eyed Pueblo warrior wraps the stairwell at the Colby College Museum of Art in stark black and white, his gaze burning, or so it feels, right into your soul. The image, by Cochiti Pueblo artist Virgil Ortiz, is plucked from his future dystopian vision: A second Pueblo Revolution of 2180, five centuries past the real-life first, when his ancestors beat back Spanish colonial invaders in 1680. It marks the entry to “Painted: Our Bodies, Hearts, and Village,” a new, exhiliratingly complex exhibition that recasts popular notions of art from Southwestern Indigenous Pueblo communities and connects them to a vibrant present. And Ortiz’s future vision is jarring enough to shake any preconception loose.
Colby’s exhibition is one of three in the Northeast this summer focused on art from the Pueblo communities: The other two are at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, soon to build a permanent home for its Native American collection. The overlap shouldn’t be surprising. Pueblo art, particularly the majestic clay pots adorned with geometric and animist motifs that span centuries, have been coveted crowd-pleasers in urban America for decades. How the exhibitions diverge — in concept, in presentation, even in what they consider “Pueblo art” to be — is important. Together, they help sketch a broad, evolving reconsideration of what Indigenous representation in mainstream American museums was, is, and could potentially be.
It’s a moment rich with significant markers. In July, Jeffrey Gibson, a Choctaw-Cherokee artist from Colorado, was named the first Native American artist to represent the US at the Venice Biennale, one of the art world’s most prestigious stages, next year. And in just the past few years, museums across the country have added curators of Native American art to their permanent rosters.
Almost every case is a first: Patricia Marroquin Norby, who is Purépecha, at the Met in 2020; Marina Tyquiengco, who is CHamoru, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, in 2021; and Tess Lukey an enrolled member of the Aquinnah Wampanpoag, for the Trustees of Reservations earlier this year, to name a few. And many museums are re-installing their permanent collections of American art interwoven with Indigenous pieces. Near here, the Peabody Essex Museum, in 2022, was among the first, while the Portland Museum of Art debuted their own in June.
At Colby, “Painted” adapts an old bequest to fresh thinking. Years before, the museum had been gifted a collection of paintings by the Taos Society of Artists, a group of mostly eastern transplants who set up shop in New Mexico in the early 20th century. They produced landscapes and portraits of Pueblo people for a rapt eastern market; the paintings hung in the museum for years, on and off, unchallenged, as examples of a regional painting group.
What became apparent, said chief curator Beth Finch, was how much was left outside the frame. “We knew we needed to know [the paintings] better, and understand them in a more meaningful way,” she said.
“Painted” delves deep; its three curators, Siera Hyte, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, Juan Lucero, who is Isleta Pueblo, and Jill Ahlberg Yohe, explore the painters’ cliched romanticism, popular in its time, of a noble, simple, and ultimately vanishing race. But they’re also careful to point out that the artists’ relationships with the people they painted were often genuine, despite the power dynamic. “We wanted to honor that, too,” Hyte said, “and make sure that we were showing how complex stories can be lost over time.”
“Painted” is a quietly radical thing: It displays historical pottery by Pueblo makers, early-20th-century paintings by enterprising eastern transplants, and the work of contemporary Pueblo artists like Ortiz, whose influences are equal parts his own ancient traditions and “Bladerunner.” Through those collisions, the show grapples with cultural appropriation and the nuances of Native-settler relationships, and how the echoes of the past reverberate in the present. But above all, it conveys an unmistakable sense of a Pueblo culture both revered for its traditional production and alive and thriving in this very moment.
“Finally,” Ortiz said with a laugh, when I spoke to him recently about the Colby show. He was also the exhibition’s designer, ringing the walls of each gallery with graphic motifs that could as easily be ancient runes as data transmissions of a distant galactic civilization. Ortiz still digs clay to make traditional ceramics, but his practice also includes photography, film, and virtual and augmented reality. “Letting people know we’re still here thriving, creating — that’s been my project for the last two decades,” he said.
Critically, “Painted” reaches far and wide for perspectives on the complex stories it unpacks. The curators brought the local Wabanaki community into the project too; it is, after all, their land. Maine Penobscot artist Sarah Sockbeson’s work, a basket woven of vinyl siding, is one of the exhibition’s true wonders.
Colby commissioned nine new works from Pueblo artists for the show, including “Through Eyes That Capture Us,” a video piece by Taos Pueblo and Diné artist Mozart Gabriel Abeyta. It features interviews with Taos Pueblo members Gilbert Suazo, Robert Mirabal, and Jonathan Warm Day, whose grandparents posed for the TSA painters. Mirabal composed a sparse musical piece for the show that wafts through the galleries.
“It shouldn’t be radical to include native communities in exhibitions that claim to represent native communities,” Hyte said. “What I hope that it does for visitors is to help them understand the past very much has bearing on the present.”
More radical might be “Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery,” which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in July. A stunning display of Pueblo ceramics spanning a millennium — one piece, a Mogollon jar with delicate black and white spirals, a motif still used today, dates to AD 1050. “Grounded in Clay” is a landmark, the institution ceding its own ground: For the first time in The Met’s history, the exhibition is curated by an outside agency, the 60-plus member Pueblo Pottery Collective, representing 21 Indigenous communities, based in Santa Fe. Pieces were chosen from the collections of the Vilcek Foundation in New York and the Indian Arts Research Center of the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe.
The show opened last summer in Santa Fe at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, so the community could see it first, said Brian Vallo, a former Acoma Pueblo governor who frequently advises museums on Pueblo exhibitions. The show makes space for the “Pueblo people themselves to tell their stories,” he said, and embodies the movement to decolonize museums’ practices around Native American culture.
For Norby, the Met’s first-ever curator of Native American art, the show is a significant marker on a trajectory she began when she joined the museum almost three years ago. Since then, Norby has been inviting Native American artists and scholars to become active collaborators, authors, and with this show, curators. “Grounded in Clay” resonates with a chorus of voices, describing, piece by piece, the works on display — works that they, as community members, have chosen.
Some of the 100 works here have extended text from one of the collective that delves into the personal or spiritual. A small gray pot rimmed with a black sawtooth pattern dates between AD 1150-1250 ; it’s accompanied by a passage written by LeeAndrea Bernal Trujillo, from Taos Pueblo. The pot was found at Arroyo Seco, where she grew up. “It makes me wonder, who made this vessel? Were they related to me?” she wrote.
Significantly, the labels don’t include standard museum taxonomies: donor, accession number, owner. It’s a quietly powerful gesture that acknowledges the fraught history of acquisition — and sometimes, theft — that plagues historical Native American museum collections. The gesture also re-situates the pieces as vital fragments of Indigenous culture and history, not things bought and sold. “We kept those kinds of details off intentionally, to really highlight the sense of connection, the ancestral lineage between the objects and the people speaking to them,” Norby said.
As at Colby, The Met’s “Grounded in Clay” lives in the present, despite the untold generations it spans. On a wall adjacent to a spectacular cluster of pottery is a jagged photo composite of a Southwestern mesa looming over scrubby low desert, rendered in a fiery pink; it’s a 2023 piece by Michael Namingha, who is Ohkay Owingeh-Hopi, called “Yupkoyvi (The Place Beyond the Horizon).” Nuclear testing in the 1950s and ‘60s left swaths of the traditional Pueblo territories lastingly irradiated.
“The potters talked about how now when they go out to harvest the clay in the traditional way, some of them actually take Geiger counters with them,” Norby said.
Though a landmark, “Grounded in Clay” is not a culmination. “I see the next step as being even more transparent,” Norby said, “directly addressing issues we might have in the collection itself. The lack of representation — what percentage is represented by Indigenous art and Indigenous communities? There are so many steps left to take.”
A few hours north, at the Shelburne Museum, a very different kind of Pueblo display opened in June. “Built from the Earth” puts on view 35 Pueblo clay pots from the collection of Anthony and Teressa Perry, private collectors who have amassed several hundred Native American pieces from across the country. On view are works from within a narrow timeframe, from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries; all but two are attributed to “maker formerly known,” an identifier intended as a sign of respect for the Indigenous creators whose identities were largely ignored by white collectors in their time.
Within its narrow frame, the Shelburne’s exhibition makes efforts to respect the communities and people it represents. The pieces are arrayed along a spiral pattern elemental to Pueblo cosmology, and the walls and displays are painted deep aubergine and mustard yellow, on the request of a Pueblo advisory committee. “They told us that purples and greens and reds and yellows were all sacred to various Pueblos,” Victoria Sunnergren, the museum’s first and newly appointed associate curator of Native American art, told me.
In lengthy wall labels, some by members of the exhibition’s advisory committee, community members describe several pieces themselves. Significantly, none of the works are protected by plexiglass vitrines. “I told our exhibition designers, ‘If you have to put a vitrine on it, you have to put breathing holes in it,’” she said.
Austerely reverential as “Built from the Earth” is, any visual marker of the vibrant culture of the Pueblos today is conspicuously absent. Blown-up historical photographs of Indigenous people, from the archives of the Palace of the Governors in New Mexico, loom over the display in grainy black and white; none are identified, and the photographers are not named (Sunnergren, who is not Native American, omitted the historical captions, she said, “because some of the titles are offensive.”)
In the next few years, a new building made to host the museum’s Native American collection — as of now, about 500 pieces, mostly from the Perrys — will open on the Shelburne’s bucolic campus, designed to include performance and ceremonial space for tribal members wanting to commune with the pieces held there.
“We set out from the beginning saying it’s a living collection, and it’s about the conversation with source communities,” said Tom Denenberg, the museum’s director. “We’re still learning as we go. ... What we do know, clearly, is that as we’re working with historical materials, we need to build relationships and trust with different communities it comes from.”
“Painted,” in Waterville, offers a glimpse into what that future might look like. In one stark moment, Taos Society painter Ernest Bluenschein’s “Untitled (Mountain Wood Gatherers),” 1926, peopled with small, blanket-swathed Native American figures dwarfed by majestic peaks, shares the wall with Diné artist Tont Abeyta’s “Citadel,” 2021, a striking scene of the adobe homes of a Pueblo village hunkered into the hillside under a wall of roiling, ragged clouds.
Between them, a warrior figure in ashen gray-blue ceramic flexes his arms above his head; “Omtua,” his name, is a 2023 piece by Ortiz, a callback to the 1680 Pueblo Rebellion, when Omtua, who ran messages between neighboring villages coordinating the uprising, was captured, tortured, and killed by the Spanish invaders. That, as they say, is history; “Painted” offers a view to a future, maybe at last within sight.