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Nampeyo, Polacca polychrome water jar

Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa), Polacca Polychrome Water Jar, c. 1895–1900, clay and pigment, made in Arizona, U.S., 30.5 × 34.3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); speakers: Gaylord Torrence, Fred and Virginia Merrill Senior Curator of American Indian Art, The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and Brian Vallo, Director, Indian Arts Research Center School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Video transcript

VALLO: As an Acoma tribal member, I’m particularly interested in the materials that come from the southwest. This large water jar, made in Hopi by Nampeyo, who was from First Mesa, was probably in the home and was a storage jar for water. TORRENCE: Nampeyo is regarded as the great matriarch of Pueblo pottery. She is the first Native American artist to have been known by name. She achieved international fame and was well known as a potter when this pot was created. What we see in this pot is known as Polacca polychrome, a white-slipped ware. Pueblo pots are not glazed, they’re painted. What’s depicted here are two pairs of spirit figures on opposing sides. One is a Pahlikmana, a spirit figure that is danced by a woman, with a very very elaborate tablita headdress that is an abstraction of rising cloud forms and feathers. This figure is caught in the moment. The dancer’s head tips to the right and her arm, in an opposing gesture, tips to the left. And on the opposing sides is a male kachina, a mask spirit figure, probably a hunter. This figure carries a bow and arrow as well as a rattle. This figure stands erect, the head is tipped back slightly. What you have here is the perfect gesture of the dance, as though that kachina is standing five feet away from you. VALLO: The design on this piece is just exquisite. You have the rainbow and then the clouds and rain symbols along the neck of the pot. Pottery of this type are made by a coiling method. The Hopi people have a source for clay. Clay is also a very sacred resource. Most potters will refer to the clay as the Clay Mother. The mineral paints are also gathered from local area. Once the designs are applied, usually using yucca fibers, the pot is ready for outdoor pit firing. That’s a risk, because after you’ve gone through all of this process of creating the pot and decorating the pot, there’s always that chance in the firing process that it will crack. TORRENCE: I believe that what Nampeyo was doing in this pot was painting a lived personal experience. These are not simply static representations. What she has captured here is the very moment of the dance. There’s an intensity to these figures and an otherworldliness. You look at this pot and it’s an encounter with a spirit figure.