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Harry Fonseca, Creation Story

“Creation Story” by Harry Fonseca is an acrylic on canvas made especially for the 2004 inauguration of the new building of the National Museum of the American Indian and still hangs in the same place since its opening. At almost 18-feet wide, this monumental work depicts the stories of Fonseca’s Maidu ancestors while also celebrating the act of creation. Learn more about this masterpiece with Kevin Gover (Pawnee), the Under Secretary for Museums and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(Jazz music) Hello, I'm Kevin Gover, the Under Secretary for Museums and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution. Welcome to Bank of America's Masterpiece Moment. Today I would like to tell you about one of my favorite works from our collection, "Creation Story" by Harry Fonseca, in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and tell you why I think it is truly a masterpiece. Every time I walk past Harry Fonseca's monumental, almost eighteen-foot-wide painting "Creation Story," on the third floor of the museum, I stop for a moment and look at it. The painting is particularly meaningful to me because Fonseca created it especially for the inauguration of the new building of the National Museum of the American Indian. Like many Native people, he was excited about the prospect of the new museum in Washington and was proud to offer the largest and most ambitious creation of his career. Fonseca was much beloved among the Native community and, sadly, succumbed to cancer shortly after the museum opened in 2004. His painting has remained installed in the same location ever since we opened to the public. Fonseca was one of the most promising of a generation of Native artists that redefined American Indian art in the 1980s and 1990s. Although his career was shortened prematurely, "Creation Story" represents a crowning achievement and a true masterpiece in every sense of the word. Harry Fonseca was born in Sacramento, California, in 1946. He was of mixed ancestry: His father was Portuguese, and his mother, the child of Native Hawaiian and Maidu parents. He studied painting at both Sacramento City College and California State University, Sacramento, but claimed that his most important influential teachings came from his Maidu maternal uncle, Henry Azbill, who was well known and an important knowledge keeper in the Maidu community. The Maidu are a small tribe in Northern California, and his uncle brought Fonseca into ceremonies, urged his participation in traditional dances and taught him the Maidu creation stories that are the inspiration for this painting. Fonseca made paintings inspired by the Maidu creation story throughout his career; his earliest works date back to the 1970s. There is no question that his painting for the National Museum of the American Indian represents the sum of his efforts on this theme. But the painting does not tell a story. Instead, Fonseca created a work of art that celebrates the act of creation itself and the enormous, complex and magical world that resulted. The Maidu creation story, as told by Fonseca's uncle, is long and complicated. It begins with Earthmaker, alone in a watery world of no light, of nothingness. Through the power of song, Earthmaker willed other beings to join them, and together they created light, the air and the earth with all its varied mountains and rivers, plants, animals, and a man and a woman, the first people. Fonseca's act of painting mimics the power of the Earthmaker's creation through songs, filling his empty canvas with a lively topography of gold and blue, animated by specks of red, the color of life-giving blood. The space is inhabited by enigmatic symbols, clumps of trees, scurrying animals and mysterious, paired figures. I particularly like the many bighorn sheep running in small clusters throughout the painting. They are drawn from pictographs carved in the rocky valleys of the Coso Mountains in Northern California. Ancient hunters carved the images of the bighorn sheep with spindly legs but fat, meaty bodies, as seen here in Fonseca's painting. Some think that the pictographs were intended to help multiply more bighorn sheep for hunting. I like to think that Fonseca identified with the idea that making art, making this painting, is itself an act of creation, just like Earthmaker's songs and the ancient hunter's hopeful pictographs. Fonseca's paintings like this one should be better known than they are now. Native artists like Fonseca have had difficulty being recognized in the larger, non-Native art world. His many "Coyote" pictures are probably his most familiar works. They recast the traditional Maidu culture hero and trickster, Coyote, into contemporary Pop art terms, dressed in leather jackets, blue jeans and high-top sneakers, for example. But his work can also be gut wrenching and political, like the series "The Discovery of Gold and Souls in California." The small abstract pictures offer variations of a black cross set in a gold leaf and splattered with blood-red iron oxide pigment. Fonseca has said that they are "a direct response to the physical, emotional and spiritual genocide of the Native people of California. With the rise of the mission system and much later the discovery of gold in California, the Native world was fractured, and with it, a way of life and order devastated." Harry Fonseca was a major American artist of the late twentieth century, and his "Creation Story" for the National Museum of the American Indian is one of his true masterpieces. We are very proud to share this magnificent painting with visitors to our museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. I want to thank you for taking the time to watch today and learn more about "Creation Story" by Harry Fonseca. I encourage you to join the conversation and discuss this work with family and friends. And please visit the Bank of America Masterpiece Moment website and sign up for alerts and ensure you never miss a moment. To sign up to receive notifications about new Bank of America Masterpiece Moment videos, please visit www.bankofamerica.com/ masterpiecemoment.