This edited show always shows the same kind of beautiful wares, made in the pueblos of New Mexico and on the Navajo reservation: clay pots, formed of local clay, fired in outdoor ovens and painted meticulously by hand with the designs that have come down for generations; blankets and rugs, also duplicating age-old patterns and colors, and kachinas and other sculptures copying models that allow for little variation or invention.
These things are beautiful, their beauty sometimes astounding, and it is what the buyers are looking for: an imitation of the past, to take home to Texas or California, to display on a shelf and be rather quickly forgotten.
Indian Market is hagiography in visual form; the copying and idealization for the past—a past that was tragic, but that bred people of enormous resilience, multiplying through the generations that followed the U.S. genocide, surviving because of their faith in always moving forward.
As a Navajo leader said when reminded that yesterday was the 150th anniversary of The Long Walk, he and his people do not think or speak of that disaster, and they do no visit the palliative monument at Fort Sumpter.
But they must make a living. For generations, they have managed to survive by making highly-skilled copies of the beautiful, but also utilitarian, objects their ancestors perfected—pots to hold water, blankets to keep out the cold. These modern reproductions are beautiful, but they have no utility.
A fierce debate arose here recently between the Natives and their white supporters who champion the old way—the way of hagiography—and younger artists who want to develop original designs. The debate led to the splitting of the market into two parts; the traditionalists claimed, as always, the Plaza at the center of town, the innovators settled into the new city park, the Railyard.This debate will probably never be resolved, at least as long as buyers prefer to spend their money on copies. For, no matter how skilled, how beautiful, these traditional pots and rugs are, they allow no room for the maker’s initiative, for the untrammeled use of her/his vision, for art that reaches into the future, rather than into the past.
The traps of hagiography are all about us. In my new book, The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters, just published by Sarabande Books, I faced the danger of idealizing the women in my mother’s family, whose letters form the basis of my work: of imitating the sweetness of my great-grandmother’s memories, a Sallie who never saw anything disagreeable, even during the Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, or copying my grandmother’s use of humor to paste over, in the acceptable way, the miseries of her life, or my mother’s attempt, successful as it turned out, to disguise and then justify dishonorable behavior. All of them were copying a familiar stereotype, not a Navajo rug but the Angel in the House, that plaster nineteenth century icon whose self-righteousness sometimes allowed for very questionable motives and acts.
Writing about one’s family’s past always raises the issue of hagiography: whether to coat these past lives with maple syrup, to make these renditions as palatable to today’s readers as they would have been to the women who wrote the letters. No room, then, for sharp intuition, for cutting through the veils thrown over unpleasant events and people, to copy a familiar model—the biographies of the saints—rather than sailing off into unknown and often dangerous territory.
In choosing invention, I chose my own view, my own voice, as I chose the woven forms of the marble statue I bought at Indian Market from a young Navajo sculptor. It won a blue ribbon, but that did not endear it to the shoppers hurrying past to study one more pueblo pot. But for me, the twists and turns of the white marble are the same twists and turns that animate my imagination and my writing. For the artist, as for the writer, there is in the end no turning back.