The Hopi Craftsman Exhibition

The Creation of Authenticity

By: Linda B. Eaton

Originally Published in 1994

View PDF

The relationship of the public with American Indians has always been uneasy, and museums are often brokers in the complex process of nego¬tiating and defining this dynamic. Even in the U.S. Southwest, where Indian groups maintain considerable group integrity and are numerically significant in the population, museums still serve as translators between Southwestern Euro¬Americans and Native Americans who are quite literally their neighbors. The public believes museums portray an objective truth about Native American life and does not consider that this life could be affected or changed by the way it is interpreted. Because Indians are associated in the public mind with tem¬poral as well as cultural “otherness,” museums are cast as time machines. dealing both with some version of the real past and also the pseudo-past of modern Indian life. Museum shops bask in the reflected glow of this implied con¬nection with the past and the attendant aura of “authenticity” for their wares.
These phenomena are even more powerfully mixed when a museum sells Native American art out of an exhibit, as in the annual Museum of Northern Ari¬zona’s Zuni, Hopi and Navajo artist exhibitions. In them, artists, traders, deal¬ers and the Museum’s own shop enter original works by tribe members for judg¬ing and sale. Outside experts award ribbons and prize money in up to sixty categories per show; in 1991 sales totaled about a half-million dollars.
These events combine the prestige and implied selectivity of museum objects with the purchasing opportunities found in large market-style shows and fairs. Like other judged events, they are useful to collectors who are interested in acquiring ribboned pieces for investment purposes or who seek a validation of taste and judgment. But they also have a very unusual feature. Much interest in these shows attaches to the fact that the staff conducts collecting trips to the reserva¬tions, bringing in entries from elderly and/or less acculturated artists seldom seen at market-style shows. The shows’ perceived association with this full range of materials, emphasizing the most “tra¬ditional” (read, “authentic”), is largely responsible for their popularity. This perception of authenticity is iron¬ic in the light of the history of The Hopi Craftsman exhibition. The show was begun in 1930 by Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton (Fig. 2), co-founder with her hus¬band, Harold S. Colton (see Fig. 10), of the Museum of Northern Arizona. She defined the Museum’s responsibility as using its resources to “save and improve” (emphasis mine) Hopi art forms, and to encourage innovation with traditional Hopi designs in new uses. Although its pressures toward revivalism may he seen as a species of traditionalism, the show has been in fact both a reflection of and a tool for great change.

To “Save and Improve”

Certainly, changes in the fundamental nature of Hopi arts had begun long before the Colons’ first visits to the Mesas, in work by Nampeyo and others for sale to outsiders. Nampeyo’s empha­sis was aesthetic, and it has been argued that she was consciously creating a new category, Hopi “art pottery” (McKenna 1983:29). Colton’s response to this change may be read in the early collec­tions she made for the Museum, which were weighted heavily toward Nampeyo’s innovative work.

But another new phenomenon in Hopi pottery was not represented in her collecting efforts. Thousands of pots were made in the early 20th century in response to the “low end” curio market. As quantity increased, quality declined, with pots exhibiting poorly applied, easily rubbed-off paint (Bartlett 1978:16). Bunzel noted primarily small pieces, chronically underfired and smudged, with paste soft enough to be easily scratched with a fingernail (1972:56-57). The relationship of this “low end” ware  to Hopi art pottery seems at first glance a tenuous one, but it, exactly like the art pottery, was a direct response to the presence and desires of outsiders in the Hopi world.

According to Katharine Bartlett, a val­ued colleague of the Cottons (Fig. 3), potters were encouraged to send not just pieces of interest to the traders, but also the fine old style decorated and undeco­rated ceramic vessels that they made for their own everyday use (1978:17). Although this could be interpreted to mean that the cowboy hat ashtrays popu­lar with traders were welcome, Coltons instructions to personnel taking show entries in 1931 make it clear that this was not the case.

If material is not of best quality, it is not to be accepted. Maker must be told that Museum agent feels sure that the maker can do better, as only the hest stands a chance to win a prize. In such a case, the maker will almost always withdraw work and promise to have a better piece on the return of the expedition in June. (1931:8-9)

The Museum substantially defined that excellence. Employees took in most entries by going to the villages them­selves (Fig. 4), often seeking out certain makers, a practice still followed today.

The Creation of Authenticity

Colton said in 1933 that the objects were essentially judged in advance and that only prize-worthy material was accepted (1933:2). Even objects brought or produced by the crafts demonstrators had to be submitted for a level of judg meant: “If anything is brought…which the Museum does not think fit and which is rejected by the Museum, then it is against the rules to sell such articles any­where on the Museum property” (Colton 1931:2). Colton then asserts that the Indian maker will not resent the criticism of his/her work so long as the criticism is based on a true understanding of the material and that, in fact, such criticism will increase the Indian’s opinion of the Museum’s agent. In other words, Colton contended that the selectivity exercised in the early Hopi shows was in response to Hopi values, rather than to the domi­nant society’s ideas of art and the market that grew out of them.

Shows were judged by Museum-cho­sen “experts” (Fig. 5). Cash awards and the increased likelihood that a ribboned Mary-Russell Colton wrote of such pieces, “The characteristic Indian forms are disappearing in favor of pretty little candlesticks, flower-baskets, etc. The beauty of design remains, but the prod­uct is only half Indian” (1930a:2). It was to combat these “degenerated” creations that the Colton5 started The Hopi Crafts­man exhibition. Colton prepared the way with an article in a business magazine that emphasized the “half Indian” quali­ty of modem pieces, and stated her belief that the abilities and inclination to do “excellent” work were there in Indian artists. She attributed the then-current poor quality work not to Indiannes hut to the American market.

The Southwestern Museum’s Mas­terkey said of the project: The Museum of Northern Arizona is an active factor in Hopi arts and crafts, members of its staff keeping in close touch with the villagers, encouraging them to adhere to the old sound canons of their native industries, to keep before their eyes the simple nobility of their own art forms and look not with covetous envy upon the specious gewgaws of the alien American. (1931:87)

But what Colton was doing was not merely encouraging Hopis to “keep before their eyes the simple nobility of their own art forms.” When she defined the Museum’s goal as to “save and improve’ Hopi art, she meant to change the direction of the art with financial incentives for a desperately cash-poor people.

Colton herself consistently referred to The Hopi Craftsman exhibition as a “sci­entific experiment” in altering Hopi arts in particular directions by “educating” the Hopi and by educating the market (Fig. 1). Exhibits emphasizing pre-20th century methods were prepared for

Hopis to view before making their entries and ford patrons to see during the ex­hibition (Colton 1931:13), Colton, and therefore the Museum, took the position that there was a “right” way for Hopi arts to be done and expounded on this idea at every opportunity.

Show procedures even included an autumn, post-show journey by Museum personnel to the Mesas: I spend a week or so visiting practical­ly every worker in the twelve villages individually and discussing with them the reasons for the awards which have been made during the exhibition. At this time work for the coining winter is talked over; market problems are discussed; possible improvements in the various types of work are dis­cussed with the craftsmen and demonstrations are used wherever possible…(CoIton 1933:3) piece would sell placed a considerable financial premium on a maker’s ability to please the judges.

Colton made numerous statements about changes she wanted to see in Hopi art. She was particularly interested in encouraging the manufacture of objects falling out of use; stimulating “better” workmanship, often defined as using pre-20th century technologies; encouraging new items made using old techniques; and creating a wider market For Hopi goods of the finest type” (Colton 1935:37). From the beginning she dis­cussed these as both goals and faits accomplis, a kind of “declaring victory,” and her educational materials for the public clearly defined as “authentic” and most worthy of purchase those items that met her goals. Colton apparently saw no contradiction between her “manage­ment” of Hopi art and the idea of an art generated by Hopi realities, stating that “All art has a tendency to degenerate—to go downhill; it needs jacking up and practical encouragement” (1930h).

To Colton, one important aspect of this encouragement was apparently tied to maintainin traditional techniques. She repeatedly compared contemporary pieces unfavorably to items from the past: “How will [the buyer) feel when he happily carries home a wedding belt and afterwards find that it is not like the beautiful old one in the museum, it is woven and not plaited…” (1930b).

When Colton set out to increase the market for Hopi arts, she was in fact con­centrating on pieces that projected ideas about Hopis palatable to Western buyers of the day. Excellence was defined by skillful execution of pre-20th century technologies. She stressed repeatedly that The Hopi Craftsman exhibition was organized by fieldworkers in archaeology and ethnology (Fig. 6), tying present “authenticity” dearly to the past. “[lit is Arizona’s living archaeology that com­pletes the pictures. They and their art are the prototype of the ancient inhabitants of our wonderful country…” (1930a:1).

In 1934, Colton more clearly explicat­ed her feelings about this connection between Indian art and premodern technologies: The Museum of Northern Arizona feels that it is extremely inadvisable to mix or confuse Indian Arts. In their purity of design and adherence to the old methods of manufacture and in their ethnological correctness of both production and type, lie their greatest charm and their claim to a high place among the folk arts of the world. The introduction of new forms in pottery and basketry by outside influence [emphasis mine) is extremely danger­ous and should not be encouraged. Any such change should be the inven­tion of the craftsman himself, for art, like other forms of human enterprise is never static. (Colton 1934:21)

While disparaging outside influences on old art forms, she says that the applica­tion of Indian designs to objects of modern type or manufacture should not bed discouraged because it may be “desir­able from an economic point of view.” However, these new applications “should not be allowed to replace or become con­fused with the ancient or purely Indian types of work…. In order that the public may appreciate Indian art, it is necessary to show demonstrative material to explain “these primitive methods of manufacture which so greatly enhance the value of a handmade article in the eyes of the public” {1934:21-22, emphasis mine). Her view of the connection between pre-20th century technologies and marketability is very clear.

The innovations she supported pre­served pre-20th century Hopi technology intact or introduced new technologies in non-competing areas, while seeking new markets. For example, she promoted tra­ditional Hopi fabrics and embroidery as upholstery materials, scarves and pillows, and also worked with Hopi artists and museum designers in creating a new overlay style of silverwork to be identified exclusively with Hopi. She favored sign­ing works of art, and Museum staff specifically encouraged the practice from the show’s beginning.

Colton’s approach to developing Hopi arts for sale to outsiders has been criti­cized for its stringency; some critics have asserted that strict exhibition rules excluded some art forms (Wade 1985; Wyckoff 1983). In fact, actual prohibi­tions of forms and techniques were rare in the show’s history. The blue ribbon pot Colton bought from the first Hopi show and later gave to the Museum (Fig. 9) violates many of her stated standards. Its painting is bold and interesting, but the bowl has white spots, fire-clouding, unevenness, and occasional sloppiness in paint, its red is muddy and somewhat splotchy, and the paint shows wear note­worthy in a pot owned first by a museum curator, then by a museum.

The 1931 directions to the show’s per­sonnel shed light on this apparent contradiction. Having stressed that only the hest pieces be accepted, Colton then introduced immense latitude by adding, “If the maker insists that it is his best work, and the piece is at all worthy, it is best to accept it. judgment must be used” (1931:8-9, emphasis mine).

What Colton considered to be the “right” way of doing Hopi art is apparent from her writings, hut early show results suggest that she did not try to enforce these canons on individual Hopi artists. A heavy-handed attempt to enforce rapid change in objects important in Hopi life would almost certainly have been unsuc­cessful, regardless of the Hopis’ need for cash. What Colton did was more subtle and far more powerful because of its real capacity for success. In The Hopi Crafts-man, she combined the the of the Museum, her access to the press and to other persons interested in Indian arts, and her own financial resources as a collector focused on Hopi art. The exhi­bition helped her create an ongoing market for Hopi art shaped to her vision of what that art should be. Through it, she became a major taste maker in the domi­nant society’s appreciation of Hopi art.

The actual policy in the early Hopi shows seems to have been truly to accept the best of what was proffered. The iudg-ing by Colton, and by the other judges she selected, rewarded an item’s degree of closeness to her concept of “the best” in Hopi art. Through the exhibits Hof older material that accompanied the show and, more importantly, through the show’s awards, she influenced what the market responded to as good Hopi art, and it continues to respond to that influence today. Hopi show patrons still evince great interest in the judging results and prefer to buy either ribboned pieces or those they believe are similar to the win­ners. Prize money can be of only limited direct economic significance, hut the influence of judging on the larger market can have great impact on the course of a body of art.

Although many early blue ribbon pieces were far from her ideals, time and patience produced a trajectory of change that placed Colton’s stamp indelibly on Hopi art. The program also left flexibili­ty for new ideas and directions to come from the Hopi artists themselves, which her statements tell us she meant to pro­tect; these new types were then judged in the shows and considered by the market in the normal course of events (always acknowledging her presence in that judging and market). While hardly con­stituting an abdication of her intended (Colton 1938:2). The demonstrators of these “part-time” arts were often advertised by kin-terms, such as potter “Grandmother Poli” (Fig. 8), allowing the show visitor to imagine a privileged and familiar relationship with these individu­als. Accompanying descriptive literature, however, emphasized their differences and their exoticism, and press releases were sprinkled with refer­ences to ceremonies and the esoteric kachi­na religion. The experi­ence was, and still is, a dizzying exercise in compromise and con­tradiction, all carefully controlled by the muse­um host.

The Hopi Craftsman exhibition was not, therefore, an attempt to represent then-cur­rent Hopi art or to pre­serve the art as Colton found it on her arrival in the Southwest. When she set out to “save and improve” Hopi art, she meant “save” in the sense of “rescue,” not “pre­serve.” The art was not intended to remain the same. It was an attempt to present a version of Hopi life and art to the world that allowed the Hopi to capi­talize (literally) on the romantic fascination  with the “noble savage.” While Mary-Russell Colton pounded home to the public the eminently marketable theme of Hopi conservatism in arts and crafts, she exerted a steady pressure toward the change she saw as needed to build a corpus of art salable to American consumers. During those early Hopi Craftsman exhibitions the show-going role in influencing change, in the end the program made that market, not herself (and not Hopis), the final authority in the changing of Hopi art. It created an influ­ence that has long outlived her.

Keeping One Distance

In looking at the history of the Hopi Craftsman exhibition, I return again to the concept of the collecting trip, the invisibility or managed visibility of the artist in this type of show. Because a wider than usual range of often less acculturated artists is represented, it pro­vides for patrons a false sense of intimacy with Hopi life. But like the art itself, this accessibility is edited. Colton’s preferred innovative uses of traditional technolo-gr-a Hopi-embroidered pillow, a cookie jar of Hopi-Tewa design—made Hopi objects, and perhaps Hopiness itself, seem accessible on the terms utterly of the dominant society. They allowed a seemingly more intimate participation in Hopi life than did decorating one’s mantel with a piece of Hopi “art pottery,” but kept the real Hopi world at a consid­erable remove.

Colton’s other preferred choice, “traditional” pieces which employed pre­modern technologies on alien Hopi forms such as wedding robes and flat basketry plaques, exaggerated the cultural gap between the Hopis and the buyers by making it seem a gap in time as well, a distance willingly but carefully mediated through the years by the Museum.

Both types of objects effectively sealed Hopi artists in past time, asking them to continue technologies no longer economically feasible in the outside world, to embody and enact a living past herself wrote about it in just that way: “the stage is going up, light effects and backgrounds are being planned to display our native crafts demonstrators… Each worker in his setting is a correct and col­orful picture—a living habitat group…” public developed the ability to believe in this conservatism and buy change in its guise, an ability that many of those attending the show retain to this day.
The current Hopi Artist exhibition continues to he dominated by Colton’s version of traditional forms. Her attempts to introduce new products were far less successful. Of the innovations she fostered, only overlay jewelry is now important.
But the results of her education of the Hopi art market remain with us. Her marketable fantasy of Indian life as little changed from the previous century is strong in show visitors, who ignore or dis­parage obviously new technologies. Collectors acquire conservative arts like textiles and basketry from a source hal­lowed by its museum setting, while the show’s procedures spare both artists and buyers the experience of the collector watching a basketmaker work by the light of a swag-lam over her dinette set with the added flicker of “The Young and the

Restless,” or picking up pottery entries helpfully wrapped for transport in the pages of The National Enquirer. Con­fronted with the present diversity of the show, buyers seize upon the familiar, what seems “authentic,” and that concept of authenticity is rooted in images of the past.

This view of Hopi as locked in past time with the museum as doorkeeper is remarkably resistant to change, despite the fact that it portrays a Hopi that in many ways never was. Efforts in 1989 to change overly paternalistic show proce­dures met great resistance among Hopis and non-Hopis alike, a large enough group to carry the day. The truth of the matter seems to be that the myth serves everyone well. The artists and collectors have the bulwark of the Museum, playing the now-familiar part it took up in 1930, acting as an unbreachable screen to pro­tect the artists’ privacy and still satisfy the buyers with its seemingly unimpeachable ability to pass truth through unaltered, thereby “guaranteeing the authenticity” of the object.

Cite This Article

Eaton, Linda B.. "The Hopi Craftsman Exhibition." Expedition Magazine 36, no. 1 (March, 1994): -. Accessed February 25, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-hopi-craftsman-exhibition/


This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.