|Articles & Reports|
Keywords: ethnicity, authenticity, real, virtual, hyperspace, cyborg, discourse, haptic
In August 2000 I visited Acoma Pueblo in Arizona. Sky City, as it is also called, is 'the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States'.2 Turning off Route 66, I exchanged sweeping interstate highway for several miles of winding, single track road that led to a car park, beside an ultra modern pavilion, at the foot of a dramatic mesa. Excursions to Sky City are carefully controlled. After purchasing a ticket for the tour and a sticker for my camera (you have to pay extra if you want to take photographs, and you must not photograph the graveyard) I boarded the minibus that carries visitors up to the mesa plateau. As I strolled about the pueblo, a Native American guide described its history. Generations of his family have lived there for centuries, in adobe buildings without running water or electricity. Listening to him, the modern world began to fade away. I rounded a corner, and there, against a spectacular landscape, was a man selling ceramics: beautiful specimens of traditional pueblo pottery, hand made and intricately patterned. They seemed utterly right - the perfect embodiment of my Sky City 'experience'. Then I noticed a sign displaying a web site address and the legend: 'we ship anywhere.' The sudden contrast between 'lo-tech' and 'hi-tech' was shocking. How had two such antagonistic states come to co-exist in this way? Back in Britain, the question continued to tease me; I decided to investigate the representation of pueblo pottery on the Internet, and the present essay is a stage in my investigation. At the same time, this is an exercise in using the Internet as a research environment and all the web site addresses given in the text will be live links.
Before this, my 'take' on pueblo pottery revolved largely around issues of gender and ethnicity. Though also practised by men, ceramics is traditionally a female affair in Native American society.3 The famous names historically associated with pueblo pottery are those of women. An authentic pueblo pot is made using techniques learnt from mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. It is coiled from local clay, decorated with naturally occurring slips, burnished, and pit or bonfired. Makers speak of a spiritual practice wherein the clay itself is a hallowed substance and its proper handling is linked to ancient ritual.
Expressions of ethnicity pervade the process, and are re-enforced in the look of the finished article, with symbolic design motifs such as the serpent and the feather. It is no co-incidence that pueblo pottery was 'discovered' at the height of the modernist movement in design. It suited modernist notions of a natural, 'primitive', unspoiled creativity, while its abstract, geometric qualities suited the clean lines of modernist interiors.
All in all, a pueblo pot is an object poised at the intersection of numerous discourses, and capable of sustaining a complex narrative web. It is also an inhabitant of the haptic realm. The difference between a 'real' pueblo pot and its slip-cast second cousin is most apparent to the sense of touch, and vendors encourage potential buyers (especially those who balk at the high prices associated with authentic pueblo pottery) to feel the goods. But how (if at all) is the sense of touch conveyed via electronic media? And given that the cultural context of pueblo pottery bestows value and is an important aspect of its interpretation, how is it re-presented for consumption on the world wide web?
Pueblo pottery web sites
Clearly the first step in arriving at any answers had to involve 'surfing'. There are thousands of web sites that respond to the search phrase 'pueblo pottery' (21,400 using www.google.com on 31/8/01) and although many hours were spent online I should emphasize that this was by no means an exhaustive search. I was 'googling' - following my inclinations and roaming the web in the intuitive manner of most surfers. While it is simply not possible to analyse everything I found, I want next to identify the general characteristics of pueblo pottery web sites. Broadly speaking, they fall into three main categories:
Sites maintained by makers tend to be more basic - sparer - than the other two categories, and it seems likely that by far the greatest number of Internet pages devoted to individual pueblo potters are incorporated into gallery web sites. There are some - like www.hanksville.org/ storytellers/nora, a curriculum vitae and bibliography of potter/poet Nora Naranjo-Morse - that stress their independence from the galleries, but in my experience they are the exception.
On the evidence of my searches, private galleries (mostly, but not all, located in New Mexico) account for far more pueblo pottery web sites than either of the other two categories. They supply the majority of my examples, although I draw on all three types. A typical gallery site opens with a home page that generally (but not always) gives a clear indication of its terrestrial origins. Thus on its home page the Morning Star Gallery of Santa Fe, New Mexico, www.morningstargallery.com, declares itself 'THE WORLD'S PREMIER GALLERY FOR ANTIQUE AMERICAN INDIAN ART,' and gives a street address at the bottom of the page. A number of options are offered next. Clicking on 'browse our current collection' opens onto a list of artefactual categories: pottery, baskets, bags, textiles, parfleche, moccasins, clothing, jewellery, weapons, musical instruments, dolls and 'other items'. Choose 'pottery', and you are presented with a line of pots; click on one of these and you can view your selection in more detail. The high resolution on-screen image appears in full colour, illuminated in sharp focus. This is characteristic of all pueblo pottery web sites. Sizes are given, and they are crucial in order to accurately conceive of the object on display. The glossy virtual piece that fills your screen may actually be less than three inches tall. At www.morningstargallery.com there are prices (discretely signalled without the $ sign) but there is no 'shopping basket' facility.6 Nor does the site give biographical information on potters. However, many sites - especially those displaying contemporary work - do give such information. And while many galleries do not sell direct from their web site, there are many others that do.
www.sedonawolf.com opens with a lengthy scroll-down home page. Although this web site invites the viewer to 'come and visit our other stores', there is no terrestrial address, only a telephone number. Subsequent enquiries have led me to conclude that sites like this belong to individual dealers. There is no 'brick and mortar' off-line gallery in the conventional sense. Prices are given (with $ signs), but as at www.morningstargallery.com there is no 'shopping basket' and would-be buyers are requested to e-mail or telephone. Again, pueblo pottery is one of a number of different types of artefact on show, but this time there is some eulogising biographical information mixed in with description, and the pots are sometimes placed in a wider context. Their authenticity is stressed:
Sometimes today Indian potters use commercial, ceramic molds (also called cast or slip-cast or greenware) Sedonawolf does NOT sell it. The pottery you see here is from established Pueblo potters and is entirely made in the traditional (hand-coiled) way.7Elsewhere on the site there are hints of the debate between tradition and change that haunts (albeit quietly) the Native American art/craft/design worlds. A quote from Southwestern Pottery Anasazi to Zuni, for example, suggests that if the 'great potters' of the past were presented with work by contemporary makers they 'would have trouble believing what you brought. The fame of these great potters may last through the ages and we hope it does, but none of them could have made most of these pots.'8 Like many of the gallery sites I visited, www.sedonawolf.com seeks to educate potential customers, and energetically promotes the joys of collecting. One becomes attuned to the 'voice' of web sites like this, and inured to their somewhat florid language. www.rbravens.com belongs to the R.B. Ravens Gallery in Ranchos de Taos. Its tone is typical of many.
Like the other sites, www.rbravens.com displays a rich array of pottery alongside a variety of Native American artefacts. Here though, all the objects shown can be bought via the web site; indeed, when I visited it (2/9/01) most of the pots on the first pottery page were already sold.10
Galleries and dealers are careful to promote their sensitivity to the historical and spiritual significance of Native American artefacts. (As James Clifford has remarked, tribal artefacts 'cannot move directly into .... the art market, without trailing clouds of authentic (traditional) culture.'11) Several dealers emphasise their close contact with makers, around whom they construct a cult of personality. In so doing, they elevate their own status as 'collectors'.12 This is particularly clear at www.nativepots.com a web site produced by dealer Jill Giller of Denver, Colorado. The 'voice' is lively, individual, and extremely enthusiastic; the information given alongside many pots suggests intimate friendship with individual makers. Thus of Dolly Naranjo, from Santa Clara pueblo, we are told:
www.hozhonigallery.com goes even further. On the home page there is a photograph of the gallery owner, Janet Smith. Click on 'about us' and discover the story of her arrival in 'the southwestern region of the United States', her work as 'a partner of a Native American art gallery', and her eventual setting up of the Hozhoni Gallery in 'downtown Naperville' Illinois. Her close affinity with Native American culture is underlined throughout.
'Janet's unwavering commitment' seems real enough. There are links from her web site (the button is marked 'Friends') to sites with an overtly socio-political agenda. One of them - www.redfeather.org - opens onto 'Red Feather Development Group ... a national nonprofit housing and community development organization. We work with American Indian nations to find lasting solutions for the acute lack of proper housing and desperate poverty that continue to plague many of these communities.' Another - www.tribalwisdom.org - opens onto the Tribal Wisdom Foundation, 'An all volunteer, non-profit organization committed to the understanding and support of Native American Culture.'
There follows a packed three page homily detailing outrages against the Native American peoples, under headings such as 'Religious Persecution' and 'Violation of Treaty Rights.'
One click takes you from potter Dusty Naranjo (for that was the initial search term I used in this instance) to www.hozhonigallery.com, another click to www.tribalwisdom.org. Pueblo pottery web sites float in an extraordinarily busy universe where the relation between social and self-interest is constantly shifting. Discourses of race, ethnicity, gender, art, craft, design, and many, many more, jostle for attention. Be up to date on all the issues with the on-line newspaper www.Indianz.Com, 'a product of Noble Savage Media, LLC and Ho-Chunk, Inc.', or with www.nativeopinion.com, a web-based radio service. Listen for pleasure to 'Tribal Fires', a CD available from www.zangomusic.com. Read 'The Soul of an Indian' at www.newworldlibrary.com. Download Native American graphics from www.rtcomputer.com. Camp out in 'Authentic Handmade Tipis' from www.westerncanvas.com. Learn a Native American language at www.audioforum.com. The more one surfs, the more hectic the traffic becomes. 'Native Art Speaks Get The Message' shouts www.blueraingallery.com, but who is it addressing, and what exactly is the message? How much of this apparently complex system is nothing but a monstrous, multi-facetted projection - a gigantic chimera? How is it generated? Where is its substance? From what base does it emanate?
1. William Gibson, Idoru, Penguin 1997, p.1. back to article
2. Sky City pamphlet, 2000 back to article
3. This is a theme that has been thoroughly pursued by other writers; see for example Petersen, Susan Pottery by American Indian Women: The Legacy of Generations Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC, 1997. Also, Vincentelli, Moira Women and Ceramics, Gendered Vessels Manchester University Press 2000. back to article
4. Margaret Tafoya (1905-2001) potter of Santa Clara Pueblo, quoted in Fauntleroy, Gussie 'great women potters of the past' in Native Peoples, Art and Lifeways Sept/Oct 2001, p.26. back to article
6. The 'shopping basket' is the web page with order form etc. that enables customers to buy goods direct from the site. The only object that can be ordered direct from this site is a 'hard copy' catalogue. back to article
8. Hays, Allan and Blom, John Southwestern Pottery Anasazi to Zuni U.S.A 1994 back to article
11. Clifford, James The Predicament of Culture Harvard University 1988, p.224-225. back to article
12. The word 'collector' is much used on pueblo pottery web sites. It often has a euphemistic sense, in that all the objects in the 'collection' are actually for sale. back to article
|PuebloPotteryDotCom Issue 4|