In Southwestern New Mexico, nestled atop a high sandstone mesa overlooking vast arroyos and valleys, is the oldest inhabited community in North America — the Acoma Pueblo, also known as “sky city”. Located approximately one hour west of Albuquerque, NM, this is where the Acoma people have lived for centuries, producing an inspiring wealth of culture and art. The Acoma are Keres people, part of a cluster of Native American Indian groups who speak dialects of Keresan and are located in the Mogollan mountain region of New Mexico.
The Acoma pueblo is best known for their unique pottery style and method, utilizing techniques which have been in practice since the Acoma establishment in 1150 A.D (when the Aztec civilization was established around this time in Mexico, Southwestern Native American art was already at its peak). (5) Perhaps their finest export, Acoma pottery is emblematic of the lifestyle of people who make it. It typically features thin walls, fluted rims, hand painted animal motifs, geometric patterns usually rendered in stark black and white, or muted warm colors, and is unglazed — stylistic elements which collectively make Acoma pottery easily recognizable. Like most traditional pottery, the Acoma people created these objects with functionality in mind, using them for storage, drinking, eating, and other ceremonial purposes. Types of pottery forms include bowls, seed jars, effigy pots, and drinking pots.
Because of the dry climate and the type of clay native to the land, pottery produced in this region is both lightweight and durable. The clay is naturally gray, but appears white in most Acoma pottery because it is layered with Kaolin, a type of soft white clay. Pigments are derived from natural resources such as minerals, plants, and other types of clays. (1)
Acoma pottery follows the ‘coil and scrape’ method, which is how it has been crafted for centuries until modern technology allowed potters to use molds and slip casts for the sake of ease and time. First, the clay is gathered and prepared. This preparation involves getting rid of impurities, tempering the clay so that it is porous and does not shrink. This can be done using powdered rock or remnants of broken pottery. Next, the clay is set aside to be cured and is kept damp. While the clay cures, the potter sources their pigments from natural materials. Once everything is ready, the potter begins to coil the clay, building up a shape from the bottom with long ropes made of clay. Once the clay is built up to its desired size and shape, the clay is scraped so that smooth surfaces both exterior and interior can be achieved. Traditionally, the Acoma people use gourds for this step in the process. While the object is still damp, the potter will then apply a slip, a thin coat of liquidized clay, which is then polished with a stone. Decorations are painted on this layer with a brush made of a yucca plant. The pottery is then fired outdoors, with manure typically serving as fuel. If burning manure makes contact with pot during the firing process, a dark spot will appear on the point of contact called a “fire cloud”. This imperfection is embraced by the Acoma potter and is a sure way of knowing that the pot was indeed fired in a traditional kiln versus a modern, electric one. (4)
As the Acoma people are descendents of the Mimbres civilization (550-1150 AD), Mimbres style and technique is prominently referenced in their own pottery practice, especially during the mid-20th century to present. Early Mimbres pottery was simple in form and plain in color until it saw a drastic transformation between 750-800 A.D, when different firing techniques were being tested, as well as new ideas for decorations. (2) They devised the simplistic ‘black on white’ style of decoration, solely incorporating black, white, and gray colors in their pottery, with a similar style of intricate geometric patterns seen in modern Acoma pottery. Though pottery served its functional purpose, Mimbres pottery was also used for post-mortem rituals, and often features a hole in the center, also known as a “kill hole”, symbolically punctured and placed upside on the head of the deceased before they are buried. (2)
One of the key figures responsible for the transformation of Acoma pottery in the 20th century is Marie Zieu Chino (Acoma, 1907-1982), who alongside Lucy Lewis (Acoma, c. 1890s-1992) and a few other matriarchs in their tribe, rediscovered the innovations of their Mimbres ancestors and applied it to their own work. Born and raised in the Acoma pueblo, Chino belonged to a notable family of potters within the tribe, who continue to carry on her stylistic legacy to this day. (3) Her practice consists of the adaptation of Mimbres ‘black on white’ and geometric pattern stylizations combined with methods custom to Acoma pottery, where more organic shapes and earth colors are utilized.
Though not all Southwestern pueblo pottery has had a significant influence on the Western canon as a whole, the discovery of Mimbres pottery sparked a revival of interest among the community of the Acoma people, who have in turn produced a desirable market and collectorship of Acoma pottery over the years, many items of which are attributed to the Chino family, and can be seen circulating the auction market and sold through many gallery platforms today.
Written by Alana Voldman, MA, Research Intern
Farhad Radfar, ISA, AM
1. “Acoma & Laguna Pottery”, Heard Museum Shop, accessed August 4, 2016, http://www.heardmuseumshop.com/browse.cfm/2,80.html.
2. Brody, J. J., Catherine J. Scott, and Steven A. LeBlanc, Mimbres Pottery: Ancient Art of the American Southwest: Essays, New York: Hudson Hills in Association with the American Federation of Arts (1983), pg. 13; 39-46.
3. “Marie Zieu Chino”, In the Eyes of the Pot, accessed June 10th, 2016, http://eyesofthepot.com/acoma/marie_z_chino.
4. Page, Susanne, and Jake Page, Indian Arts of the Southwest, Tucson, AZ: Rio Nuevo, (2008) pg. 56-61.
5. Stribling, Mary Lou, Crafts from North American Indian Arts: Techniques, Designs, and Contemporary Applications. New York: Crown, (1975), pg. 251; 295.