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An exceptional Hopi black-on-cream pottery shallow bowl or hanging plaque by Nampeyo with stylized Water Serpent, feather and prayer plume designs, c.1898-1900
It’s hard to know quite where to begin with this piece, it's such an extraordinary object in so many ways; it’s a beautifully accomplished piece of Historic Hopi pottery by one of the most distinguished Hopi potters in history, it’s an almost shockingly great abstract 20th Century Modern Art statement and it’s a unique “Revival” of one of the world’s greatest pottery traditions, that of the ancient Hopi “Sikyatki Polychrome” of 1375-1625 A.D., except that this particular piece of pottery, very interestingly, is not a polychrome. The black-on-white or more correctly black-on-cream color scheme here is something Nampeyo did from time to time and is more accurately a revival of the ancient Kayenta type black-on-white (1250-1325 A.D) ceramics made by ancestral Hopi people as seen below, shards of which are found in abundance in the ruins of Sikyatki and other ancient Hopi villages such as Awatovi, Kokopynama and Kawaiika-A.
"Mrs. Nampeyo, an acknowledged best Hopi indian woman Pottery maker 1st Mesa Hopiland, Ariz. Sichomovi."
R. Raffius, 1905 photo source and © Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California
Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside
Kayenta Black-on-White jar, Northern Arizona, c. 1250-1325 A.D.
Photo source and © Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ
The various Indian Pueblos in the Southwest all venerate the water serpent and they have different names, depictions and legends for it. At left, the Hopi "Palolokan" water serpent depicted on Snake Dance kilts. The Zuni name for their sacred water serpent is “Kolowisi” as depicted in the headdress above at center and the Rio Grande Valley Pueblos refer to their plumed serpent as “Avanyu” or “Guardian of the Water” as seen on the painted dance kilt above at right.
Left and right photo sources and © Random Times. Center photo source and © The Brooklyn Museum.
Above, a modern-day Hopi interpretation by artists Michael Kabotie and Delbridge Honanie of an ancient Hopi painted Kiva mural featuring a large image of the sacred Hopi water serpent, Palolokan.
Photo source and © Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff
Even though Nampeyo (1858-1942) never once set foot in an art studio, gallery or museum her entire life
and even though she stood barely five feet tall, she is an astounding and original giant of modern art, towering shoulder-to-shoulder alongside Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, Miro, DeKooning and Pollock not to mention numerous others. And when you consider the primitive circumstances under which she created her magnificent artworks, sitting outside in the dirt under the blazing sun, in the constantly howling wind and dust and unrelenting heat and freezing cold, having to find and create all her own art materials herself, her achievements become all the more remarkable.
Just imagine for a moment if Pablo Picasso had had to paint his famous “Demoisselles D’Avignon” not in the relative comfort of a Paris art studio with a cafe on every corner of the neighborhood, but while sitting on his knees in the hard dirt hundreds of miles out in a remote isolated desert using paints he had to hand grind from local plants and minerals he had to search for and find himself, paint only with brushes he had to make from chewed yucca stem fiber on cobbled together scraps of canvas he scavenged from old army tents.
Could he have even done it? And what would it have looked like if he had?
The encircling framing lines that surround the two large snakes are also themselves stylized snake designs. Overall, this is a powerful and evocative composition filled with ancient symbolism and meaning yet all filtered and presented through Nampeyo’s unique contemporary interpretive viewpoint and amazing modern artistic vision. The interweaving of areas of negative space in and around the design is masterful giving the design a dynamism that makes it seem almost alive. The superb control of the brush and the paint application itself, particularly in the extreme precision, control and freedom of the linework, are astounding especially considering the primitive materials and techniques used to achieve it.
The bowl measures 8 3/4” in diameter and it is a quite shallow 1 1/4” in height. It is in extremely good condition, particularly for its 120-125 years of age. There is absolutely no restoration or overpainting in evidence anywhere on
the bowl under ultra-violet light examination. There is a certain degree of overall abrasion wear and it certainly appears as if this is ethnographic wear from use. There is a 3-3 1/2” hairline crack extending inwards from the rim which is quite stable and there is an approximately 1” by 1/2” chip to the bowl’s rim. There is also a certain degree of warping to the body of the vessel as can be seen in the photos below, likely due to the thiness of the vessel walls and the intense heat of the coal-firing process. We do not find these slight damages visually distracting, but if it’s bothersome, they could be easily repaired by a qualified professional pottery restorer for a few hundred dollars at most in our estimation.
Overall, the piece is remarkably intact in our view and we would strongly recommend leaving it exactly “as is”.
The part of the provenance of this piece which we know about definitively is extremely significant and that is its former ownership by the famous Fred Harvey Company Fine Arts Department as evidenced by the octagonally-shaped black bordered paper label affixed to the back of the bowl with the well-known motto “From the Hopi Villages”. In the early years of the 20th Century, The Fred Harvey Company purchased many important historic and contemporary Hopi pottery pieces from Hopi Indian Traders, Thomas Varker Keam, Alexander Stephen, J.L. Hubbell and Thomas Polacca and this piece could very well have been one of them. The Harvey Company would mark these pieces with this label, which was considered an ironclad guarantee of quality and authenticity, and put them out for sale in their prominent network of trading posts across the Southwest. This piece could have been sold at The Hopi House or the Hotel El Tovar on the south rim of the Grand Canyon or at the La Posada Hotel In nearby Winslow, Arizona or at The famous Fred Harvey Indian Building at Albuquerque’s Hotel Alvarado.
This bowl is a simply astonishing, original and daringly modern artwork, made that much more so by the extreme circumstances of its creation. By virtue of its unique, powerful, starkly Modernist composition and its overall artistic beauty It could easily be exhibited in a vitrine in the Museum of Modern Art taking its deserving place next to
a Brancusi sculpture under a Picasso or Pollock painting in the company of its distinguished compatriots, fellow
giants in the world of Modern Art.
the bowl is even more impressive and compelling now than it was back when Nampeyo made it. It has acquired over the decades the beautiful aura of age, rarity and marvelous patina having survived its perilous and likely arduous journey to arrive at this point in history, its beauty and uniqueness essentially intact after its previous transportation variously by mule and/or horse wagon, then perhaps by railroad, all in the extreme heat and dust of a broiling Southwestern summer or the howling blizzards of a frigid Southwestern winter.
The painted design of the bowl is that of a highly-stylized and deconstructed depiction of a Hopi snake society screen featuring two large images of the legendary Hopi Water Serpent known as Palolokan whose powerful image adorns the kilts of Hopi snake dancers, is featured on the altars and sandpaintings of the Snake society and is depicted in numerous of the ancient Hopi kiva murals and rock art panels made during the Sikyatki period. The snakes depicted in this bowl have Sikyatki-style birds perched on their backs. The snake images encircle and surround a central panel of stylized feather and terraced designs arranged somewhat in the form of a screen which are bordered at the top and bottom by rows of stylized prayer plume designs. More prayer plume designs are also coming our of the snake’s mouths.
“When I first began to paint, I used to go to the ancient village and pick up
pieces of pottery and copy the designs. That is how I learned to paint. But now,
I just close my eyes and see designs and I paint them.”
Sikyatki Polychrome pottery jar, c. 1450-1500 A.D.
Photo source and © The Metropolitan Museum of Art