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The Pueblo Modernism of Velino Shije Herrera

Velino Shije Herrera, a Pueblo artist, blends indigenous traditions with modern influences in his early 20th-century artwork. His paintings, like the one in the Newark museum, showcase a unique blend of Pueblo pottery designs, bird symbolism, and modernist aesthetics. This fusion creates a captivating landscape that resonates with both native and non-native viewers. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Dr. Harris] We're in an office at the Newark museum, looking at a painting by Velino Shije Herrera, also known as Ma Pe Wi, from the Zia Pueblo. It's such an interesting time to be looking at Native American art at the early 20th century because you have all of these influences coming together. You have the interest from modernist artists on the east coast. You have a burgeoning tourist industry in the southwest. And you have Pueblo artists who are painting from their indigenous traditions. - [Dr. Green] It's this moment in the teens where you have the intersection of all these various forces. So tourism in the southwest has been happening for at least 20 years bringing a tourist's gaze to the artwork. You have the influence of government and schools where there is instruction in a Euro-American sense that's imposed on Pueblo children and most importantly, you have indigenous traditions, in this case of painting. And the pueblos are articulated along the Rio Grande in New Mexico, the so called Rio Grande Pueblos. So the artists are really bringing an indigenous sensitivity and knowledge of painting, and their background is painting on pottery, painting on murals and kivas, and of course, even in more ancient times, painting on rocks. The first exhibit of Pueblo painters is in 1919 with the Museum in New Mexico. Velino Shije is one of that first core group along with Fred Kabotie and then also Awa Tsireh, and they are the painters that formulate this genre of watercolor painting on paper, which is European tradition of painting, but connecting with their own traditions. - [Dr. Harris] So what I'm seeing looks like a landscape with a sky with very stylized clouds, a tree in the center, birds in the sky, a sense of movement to some of the birds, the one who seems to be a raptor chasing another bird. Some of the birds appear more stylized, more like symbols. And then we seem to have a ground line with forms that look architectural and below that, birds that seem to be floating in the water and a horned snake and flowers that grow out of the water. - [Dr. Green] Velino is constructing a very modern and decorative landscape populated with all kinds of birds, which are very important in Pueblo world and cosmology. Birds have a lot of significance. Broadly speaking, bird feathers are used for prayers and prayer sticks and specific bird feathers and specific birds have specific meanings in terms of their seasonality, their territoriality, are they migrating birds? Are they standing water birds like ducks? Are they raptors? So there's a whole constellation here that he's representing, but what the genius is, is that he's pulling from this pantheon of Pueblo pottery, some more ancient and some very contemporary. So there's a play here on the abstraction that is inherent in Pueblo design of bird forms, of architectural forms, of clouds. He is taking that abstraction and creating a landscape for really a non-Native viewer with that modernist sensibility, with that art deco aesthetic, and the artists are in conversation with the modernist artists who have been discovering them, from their perspective, and promoting them. - [Dr. Harris] This is a moment, too, when those modernist artists, people like Marsden Hartley and John Sloan are also working to protect the rights of the Puebloan people. - [Dr. Green] Amelia Elizabeth White, who owned this piece, along with many other Pueblo paintings, was very much involved in this Indian Rights Association that was working to let outsiders like people in New York City know about what was going on in the southwest in terms of the expropriation of native land and other impinging on indigenous rights, and modernist artists really find points of aesthetic connection with these various Pueblo artistic expressions. And they champion these artists. Velino Shije here is really being creative and innovative in pushing this Pueblo graphic tradition. But he's also inspired by the consumers, the modernist artists, this art deco aesthetic, and he's inserting his work within that, but it's completely innovative. So he's really pushing this graphic tradition into a new dimension. (gentle piano music)