Appropriation (?) of the Month: Gourds as a Canvas for Mimbreño Designs

"Mimbres Quail Gourd Pot" by Robert Rivera

By Cathy A. Burton

The Swarts Ruin, located within the Mimbres Valley in southwestern New Mexico, came to the attention of the public in the 1920s when Cornelius and Harriet Cosgrove, self-trained archaeologists, began to excavate there (LeBlanc 2004a). 

Their initial excavation is considered by some to be the first thorough work done on the Mimbres people and their pottery, the production of which the Cosgroves dated to between A.D. 1000 and 1150 (LeBlanc 2004a).

The Cosgrove's described their findings in The Swarts Ruin: A Typical Mimbres Site in Southwestern New Mexico, published in 1932 (reprinted 2004), which contained drawings made by Harriet of more than 700 Mimbres bowls. The drawings, which are detailed and crisp, were immediately popular and gave modern people a connection to the past. This book not only became the standard reference on the subject of Mimbres pottery and design, but also inspired artists across the Southwest (Powell 2007; also see Nicholas 2013).

Are contemporary artisans who use ancient Mimbres designs on pottery, as well as in gourd art, appropriating Native culture? As someone who has enjoyed gourd art and participated as both a maker and collector this was a question I wanted to explore.


Mimbres Designs and the Appeal for Gourd Artists               

The art of creating pueblo-style pottery is not easy. Traditionally, the process starts with mining the clay, breaking it into smaller pieces, screening out impurities, adding temper, and then perhaps storing the clay until ready for use. Despite no wheel used in production, the pueblo potters create feats of engineering with high shoulders that do not collapse during building. The traditional firing outdoors, even for a master pueblo potter with experienced assistants, can result in a loss of as much as one third of the vessels.

In contrast to the labor-intensive process of pottery making, gourds are widely available. Hard shell gourds have been cultivated on every continent except Antarctica (Summit and Widess 1996). They are also very durable, allowing them to be easily transported with little or no breakage. A gourd artist might spend hours looking for the right size and shape of a gourd. However, unlike pottery, the basic form is ready for surface decoration. Artists and crafts people have used whole or cut gourds to create all types of imaginative works (for convenience I refer to them as “gourders”). The hard outer surface and cleaned interior of a gourd can be sanded, polished, painted, burned with a wood-burning tool (pyrography), carved, gouged, airbrushed, and more—collage, pen and ink, and mixed media are all popular techniques. Gourds have been used for tiny pendant jewelry, as well as for the resonating sections of the marimba instrument; giant varieties have even been made into boats. Gourd vessels, often resembling pottery forms, can be weighted to stand; paper clay, and other materials such as papier-mâché can be attached to alter shapes. The Huichol of Mexico use beeswax to affix glass seed beads to the concave interior surface of gourds. Some gourders imitate ceramics in what they produce, while others seek to imitate gourds.


Appropriation in Art Production

At top: "Mimbres Quail Gourd Pot" by Robert Rivera (The Torres Gallery); Above: Mary Colter's "Dinnerware from the Santa Fe Super Chief" from 1936 (New Mexico Museum of Art)

Native and non-Native artists and manufacturers have used ancient Mimbres designs in a variety of ways. For example, the Santa Fe Railroad commissioned chinaware using Mimbres designs adapted by Mary Colter (LeBlanc 2004b). Colter’s chinaware was created in 1936, but replica sets can still be ordered today and found in gift shops at the Grand Canyon National Park. Other retail items bear similar designs; indeed “You can't go anywhere in the Southwest, from hotels to postcards to pottery, without running into Mimbres designs,” Mimbres scholar Steven LeBlanc has said (Powell 2007).

In my younger days, I was enthralled with Mimbres designs, not only as a museum professional, but also as a collector and an art student. I wanted to use the designs myself. I experimented with painting Mimbres designs on the natural gourd surface. Color choices expanded from the black I first used to employing other colors that appealed to me. I also began to move past merely copying the types of line and shapes found on the ancient pottery. My work on gourds thus expanded beyond a strict concern with historic accuracy. For example, I wanted to see how an image could wrap from one side of a gourd to the other. What would happen when I changed an element or principle of design? Despite the changes I was making, I could still see how my work looked like Mimbres designs. I now realize that this work can be seen as appropriation. If I’d sold these works, my studies would have commodified Mimbres design.

Art students have long copied the work of others. Indeed, the classical academic training of European and Euro-American professional artists has often included copying the work of Greco-Roman and more recent masterpieces. Such copying was considered part of student training and a necessary step in their maturation as an artist. Technically speaking, this type of copying could also serve as the path for student to become a master engraver or an artisan employed to create lithographs from an original painting.

But there is more to appropriation than just the physical copying of a design. Copying without knowledge of the original meaning of the design or intent of the maker is wrong. This practice is like a language being misspoken. If a person hears their language being mistranslated and misapplied, they might wonder at the ignorance of the speaker or question their intentions. Or, he or she might be emotionally or otherwise alienated by the transgression and find the action of the other repugnant. As my friend and colleague, Melodie Lopez (M.S.W., Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, Mexican), articulated to me: “When I tackle….misappropriation I also discuss the loss of religious/spiritual content; which is much trickier than language. In the end, I am always disappointed that people disregard my religious convictions as 'something pretty'" (personal correspondence, 2015).  


Appropriation and Commodification of Mimbres Imagery

There are a number of professional gourd artists who have mined indigenous art and symbolic visual design. An extremely well-known gallery-represented artist, Robert Rivera (of Apache, French, and Spanish descent), has made a career of gourd art employing any number of designs and cultural ideas without permission from indigenous Southwest peoples (see images in Regan 2011; Rivera and Cawley 1993).  He has blended cultural traditions from very different people in pieces described as “Apache basket kachina,” “a medicine man warrior,” or completely fabricated and cobbled-together works, such as “a moose mask…painted with an Anasazi design.” Rivera is prolific. As he says, “When I look at a bunch of gourds, I see quail, pots with Mimbres designs, canteens, storytellers; I know exactly what design I will use” (Toh-Atin Gallery n.d.).  When Rivera started, there weren’t many professional gourders who used indigenous sources for their work. He was soon a pioneer in using references from his Southwest surroundings, and others took notice. However, Rivera is not a member of a state or federally recognized Native group, and so he cannot sell his work as Native art without being in violation of the Indian Arts and Craft Act of 1990.

Robert Rivera isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, to appropriate Mimbres art. I was a little amused (a very little) to find artist Nedra Denison, who belongs to the American Gourd Society, using petroglyph images in her work. She writes, “…the symbols in the bowl are ancient symbols that were carved in stone by Native Americans in the southwest. The symbols are Hopi and Navajo…” Ironically, her website (Sawdust Connection) includes this warning, “All of my work is copyright protected. It may not be copied, reproduced, used as a pattern, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior permission of the artist.”

People purchase this type of work not because they wish to be disrespectful. Instead, they do so because: a) while the art work is expensive it is far less so than an authentic Mimbres artifact; b) the collector and artist can meet each other; or c) the buyer may be unaware of issues of authenticity related to the artist.

I have also seen non-Native artists who teach the transfer of Mimbres and other Native-sourced images onto gourds. These classes fill quickly. Some of these teachers are very talented artists whose main goal is to instruct how to use the tools, how to manipulate a gourd surface and how to apply designs. But students are often drawn to the classes because they admire the designs and want to create something similar. In most cases, the designs are copied with little or no reference to the original ancestor-artists.

Adaption, Adoption and Innovation of Mimbres Imagery by Indigenous Artists

What about the indigenous New Mexico Pueblan artists who reference Mimbres art? This, in my opinion, should be considered continuation with innovation rather than appropriation. While the Classic Mimbreño pottery tradition continued until A.D. 1130 (LeBlanc 2004a), the Mimbres people did not just then disappear. Many contemporary Zuni people see the Mimbres as their ancestors. The cultural literacy of abstract, stylized and figurative designs, the meaning of symbolism, and choice of how to depict an animal or daily scene through the language of design has continued from one generation to the next.

To me, contemporary New Mexico Pueblan art references the ancient source, but the work is no longer strictly Mimbres. Such artists as Lucy Lewis’ family at Acoma Pueblo (LeBlanc, 2004b) are drawing on tradition, but with artistic innovation. While others might see a clear resemblance between the work of Michael Kanteena (Pueblo Pottery Maine) from Laguna Pueblo and the ancient ceramics he has studied, I also see the whimsical in his ceramics and the tremendous growth he has made during his years as an artist.

Right: Fineline ceramic jar by Lucy Martin Lewis (1898–1992, Acoma Pueblo), made ca. 1960–1970s. Collection of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum (Photo: By Uyvsdi (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons). 

Appreciation vs. Appropriation

Today I work in museum education at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, and I try to encourage visitors to learn from original objects and authentic representations. In my role, I have thus had to explain to other educators why we wouldn’t host such a workshop as “Decorate a gourd with Mimbres art” at the museum. Instead, I use my personal experiences creating Mimbres-style gourd art as an illustration of what not to do and why.

That being said, our artist-educators in residence sometimes lead programs at the museum. If a contemporary pueblo artist were to visit, perhaps they would encourage visitors to make their own fanciful creations, drawing on principles of Mimbres art and design. The outcome would be unique and original, as participants would be producing their own patterns and motifs. In this way, Mimbres art can continue to be appreciated, sparking creativity and inspiration without appropriation.




Cathy Burton is the Beeler Family Director of Education at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, and an IPinCH Associate. 

Our Appropriation (?) of the Month features, written by IPinCH team members, explore the fine line between 'cultural appreciation' and 'cultural appropriation.'