The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, has recently taken significant steps towards expanding the inclusivity and representation within its collections and display. This is particularly visible in its ground-breaking exhibition, Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery. The showcase opened on July 14 and is the first community-curated Native American exhibition at The Met, giving voice to over 20 tribal communities and sovereign nations with the United States. It offers a visionary understanding of ancestral Pueblo pottery as vessels of community-based knowledge and personal experience.
The exhibition features over 100 historical, modern, and contemporary items made of clay, which have been carefully selected and described by the Pueblo Pottery Collective, a group of over 60 individuals from 21 tribal communities in the Southwest. The collective drew from the Indian Arts Research Center of the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Vilcek Foundation in New York, to create a narrative that shifts the traditional exhibition curation model. The exhibition combines individual voices into an Indigenous group narrative, thus redefining concepts of Native art, history, and beauty, challenging stereotypes and confronting academically imposed narratives about Native life.
The Pueblo Pottery Collective, consisting of potters, designers, artists, writers, community leaders, and museum professionals, brings forth the lesser-known and intangible aspects of pottery, intrinsic to the art and enduring cultures of the Pueblo people. The pots on display at the Met connect and distinguish the lives of Pueblo communities, from the Río Grande Pueblos in New Mexico to the Hopi tribe of Arizona and the West Texas community of Ysleta del Sur. Each pot tells a story, vibrating with the experiences of those who made them and those who have been a part of their history since then.
One of the highlighted items in the exhibition is a striking water jar from Zuni Pueblo known as "puki," traditionally used as a coiling base. One of the curators, Bernard Mora, reflects on its significance, not only as a practical tool but also as a symbol of creativity, innovation, and utility within the Pueblo community. The exhibition also features a diptych by artists Mateo Romero (Cochiti) and Michael Namingha (Tewa/Hopi), and murals by artists DeHaven Solimon Chaffins (Laguna and Zuni) and Mallery Quetawki (Zuni), enriching the experience of visitors.
In line with the ethos of community collaboration, the exhibition was developed with adherence to the SAR Guidelines for Collaboration, which aims for an equitable exchange and partnership between Indigenous source communities and museum institutions. The process allowed community curators to choose the items and write about them in their preferred format, with SAR staff offering support as needed. Each curator's first-hand knowledge of pottery and its cultural significance grounded the exhibition's themes of people and place, connecting individual pots to the pride, pain, and living legacy of the Pueblo people.
Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery highlights the deep history of pottery within Pueblo communities and offers visitors an opportunity to experience the richness and complexity of Indigenous cultures. By focusing on individual perspectives and stories, the exhibition breaks away from Eurocentric timelines and Western notions of art, allowing Pueblo voices and aesthetics to take centre stage.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the collaboration between SAR, The Met, and the Vilcek Foundation persisted, adapting to virtual gatherings and workshops. The resilience and strength displayed by the community during these trying times further emphasise the significance and impact of the exhibition.
As Marina Kellen French Director Max Hollein expresses, this exhibition marks a crucial milestone in The Met's history, amplifying the stories, histories, and traditions of Pueblo communities and setting an example for more inclusive exhibitions and programs in the future. Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery invites visitors to explore the tangible and intangible stories held within the pottery, connecting the past, present, and future of the Pueblo people, and celebrating the enduring beauty and significance of these cherished vessels.
Grounded in Clay is on view during regular hours at The Met and by appointment at the Vilcek Foundation till June 4, 2024.