As a family, we’ve enjoyed trips to New Mexico and Arizona for many years. One memorable trip included a train journey from Dearborn, MI to Albuquerque, NM, where we picked up a rental RV for a three week Christmas holiday cruise around the Four Corner’s region. As often as possible, we like to return to the Navajo Nation and nearby Pueblo Peoples, like Hopi, Arizona Tewa, Zuni and the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona. This Spring though, we had the opportunity for a Home Swap and jumped at this new challenge, forgoing the buttes in Monument Valley for adobe structures in Santa Fe.
The City of Santa Fe prides itself on offering diverse types of museums for its citizens and guests. From the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art to the Bataan Memorial Military Museum, there is a place of learning and appreciation for everyone.
We had only a few days to sample some of these rich offerings, so my list of recommendations for museum visits in Santa Fe is brief, solely a teaser to inspire your, and my own, future visits. Naturally, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which I saw once before, was on top of my personal must-see list. For many years, her painting The Black Place in the Art Institute of Chicago has been my muse. It is simply my favorite painting in the universe.
Nevertheless, the O’Keeffe Museum was not our first stop. Instead, we visited one of the most fundamental collections of native American culture, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. This inspirational institution was founded by a Boston Lady Brahmin, who wished to preserve the religious heritage of the Navajo people. In 1937 Mary Cabot (!) Wheelwright established her “House of Navajo Religion” to preserve the religious practices of the Navajo people. Her partner in crime was the Navajo Elder and Singer Hasteiin Klah, who realized the desperate need for recording tribal knowledge and custom so that the healing songs to restore hózhó or Balance and Beauty Within will be perpetually available to sustain future generations. Together, this unlikely team labored tirelessly to archive many of the Navajo songs and rituals. The Wheelwright Museum has since returned sacred objects, like medicine bundles, to the Navajo Nation, which has resumed control over their religious heritage. The museum is a unique place to learn about early and positive interactions between Anglos and Natives in the Southwest. Despite her devotion to the Navajo culture, Ms. Cabot demonstrated her Bostonian upbringing throughout her years in New Mexico and Arizona – even when riding through high altitude deserts, she insisted on having her tea served at 4 PM sharp, yet she never complained about any physical hardship. A tough and classy broad!
Next, of course, was another tough broad, Ms. Georgia O’Keeffe. Did you know that she had never seen a French impressionist painting when she started to paint in an impressionist style herself? Her teachers judged her talent inadequate because she was not painting prettily and girlishly enough … what did they know! Since I love the arid desert-scapes of the American Southwest almost as much as she did, I feel a natural affinity to her paintings. Any visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is more homage than tourism.
Desert driftwood, one a sketch, one a painting
O’Keeffe likened this landscape to a herd of elephants. Contrasting the above photo against a sketch of her “elephant herd”.
Just a couple of blocks from the O’Keeffe museum, you’ll find the New Mexico Museum of Art, constructed in the tremendously popular pueblo revival style of the early 20th century. I had a lot of fun there, even before actually looking at any works of art. Checking out the very building, with its soft angles and sharp shadows under the brilliant high desert sun, was a cultural experience in itself.
I suspect, there are thousands of pictures of the museum online. Even so, I shall show off some of mine, just because it’s my blog!
I suppose I can no longer deny my preoccupation with beams and adobe wall. To relieve your boredom, I’ll continue this chapter on the Art Museum with the work of Diego Romero, who brings funky twists to traditional pots. Look closely!
In addition to contemporary interpretations of traditional crafts, the current exhibit It’s About Time presents a condensed, yet detailed cross-section through a few millennia of creativity – and destruction. From prehistoric pottery to the Manhattan Project, New Mexico has seen much.
On my husband’s first birthday, July 16, 1945, the first ever nuclear device was detonated at the Trinity site near Alamogordo. The lower nuke-cloud region over the black earth reminds me strongly of O’Keeffe’s Dark Places.
While still on the subject of death, we smile at this quintessentially New Mexico interpretation of … death. The artist, Luis Tapia, was a traditional santero carver before he developed his exquisite sense of humor.
And even this traditional and benign appearing oil painting of a Taos Pueblo man, painted by Gerald Cassidy in 1911, has a hidden, darker meaning.
Cassidy titled his painting ‘Cui Bono?’ – who benefits? in reference to the ever-increasing tourist industry in the Southwest and the strong feelings of entitlement by White Americans to expend their holdings across the continent at the cost of disenfranchised native peoples. Part of this mission was expressed in the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, proclaiming that White Americans had the moral obligation to “civilize” Native Americans. And boy, did they ever try!
After browsing through 14 000 years of art downstairs, I encountered the work of a remarkable contemporary artist named Derrick Velasquez, whose pieces are exhibited, with other contemporary art, upstairs in large, old and dark Spanish style chambers with carved corbels and inlaid wood ornamentation. An edgy, almost jarring juxtaposition.
Velasquez’ work was quite captivating – except, those buckets kept intruding. More buckets, buckets everywhere … what’s going on? The more I looked at the buckets, the more they appeared like an installation to me. Believe me, I’ve seen crazier exhibits! I was the only visitor upstairs at the time, so it was eerily quiet, only occasionally a creaking beam would complain of old age. Therefore I noticed very soon that the buckets were catching droplets of, presumably, water. Drip, drip … drip. Aha, buckets as musical instruments, of course. Then again, which museum curator would willingly install a source of fluid near their precious print art? Exactly.
Meanwhile, my fascination with red buckets forced me to crouch on the floor and spill over benches, in order to get better bucket shots, which in turn aroused the suspicion of the guard. He hovered ever closer, peeking around door frames, to ensure the continued safety of his inventory.
Finally, I asked him if the buckets were catching condensation from an A/C system, but he thought it was humidity dripping from the ceiling. Considering Santa Fe’s extremely low humidity, this was one of those ‘Really? How?’ moments. At the last second, I remembered that this helpful person was a security guard, not a refrigeration engineer and I didn’t pursue the issue.
Another issue is the poor light quality of my indoor pictures. Even though the museum allows photography, no flash may be used. Since the individual works of art are illuminated by directional spots, the actual space was quite gloomy, especially those gorgeous rooms upstairs. My apologies. Lastly, my tongue-in-cheek take on O’Keefe’s House through Window – then we can finally move on to the next museum.
Well, I lied. I’ve one more picture for you. A picture of a sweet and remarkably tiny installation in a window well in the central courtyard, which I’d like to show you. It is a Dwelling for Imaginary Civilizations of Little People by artist Charles Simonds. This clay landscape on the window sill is intended to deteriorate in the natural elements with “purposeful neglect”, thus mimicking the disappearance of cultures into the mist of time. If you’ve ever hiked into a canyon to see a cliff dwelling, for example, Bitát’ahkin or Kits’iil near Kayenta, AZ, you feel right at home in this miniature version.
At last a different museum!
Allow me to I introduce to you the beautiful Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. This facility is a marvel of discovery, but won’t allow cameras (do I hear a sigh of relief?). When you check out the website, please watch the video introduction. It provides a glimpse of the impression, I felt very strongly during my visit. This is not a museum displaying artifacts, which are present also, of course, but a window into vibrant Native Culture, living and breathing right there, next to us clueless Anglos. The exhibit Here, Now & Always offers further inside and you see the love, the care and the deep concern which Native people, professionals and laypersons alike, have brought to this exhibit.
I’ll leave you with the words of Luck Tapahonso, Diné (Navajo)