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Women + Arts

Courage and Compassion: Native Women Sculpturing Women

OCTOBER 14, 2014

First exhibit of its kind featuring leading American Indian Women sculptors of 20th and 21st centuries

Courage and Compassion: Native Women Sculpting Women opens at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture Nov. 2, 2014 and runs through Oct. 19, 2015. The exhibition features figures of women sculpted by seven American Indian women artists. Most of the ten works on view will be in the museum’s outdoor Roland Sculpture Garden.

There is a long history of sculpting among the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The artists in Courage and Compassion, while contemporary in their approach are steeped in tradition. Using the same materials as their ancestors did thousands of years ago, the works presented draw on cultural influences of those who have gone before

The depictions of women shown in this exhibit are not portraits of particular women, with one exception, but speak to their strength in their native cultures, their roles, and how they are viewed.

Proceeding clockwise around the Roland Sculpture Garden, the exhibition represents the many phases of women’s lives from childhood through old age, and their many roles from mother, to culture keeper, to honored one, to one exuding the courage and strength of the people.

The Works/Artists

The first figure, Greeting the Sun, is a Hopi maiden in abstract form in the shape of a gourd by Kim Seyesnem Obrutz (Hopi). The ritual of greeting the sun has existed for millennia in numerous cultures around the world. Of her own Hopi culture, Obrutz says, "The Sun is our Father as the Earth is our Mother. Our ancient way of being sensitive to our surroundings is important to the reverence of life and has gone unchanged to this day." The ritual of greeting the sun is practiced by facing east to the rising sun to express gratitude for the blessings of the earthly realm, and to ask that one live with respect for all living things. Both Greeting the Sun and the next sculpture, Morning Prayer, face due east, following this tradition.

Next, Morning Prayer by Estella Loretto (Jemez Pueblo) depicts a powerful yet serene figure of a woman holding a bowl, which represents a corn meal blessing. Such blessings often evoke the spirits of the ancestors and include prayers to the four sacred mountains or the cardinal directions. This figurative bronze represents the traditional pueblo woman in dress and adornment in turquoise.

Child by Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo) depicts an intimate portrait of mother and child with the mother presenting her child to the new day, greeted by the rising sun in a child’s naming ceremony. Swentzell works in clay, building her figures by making large coils of clay that are then worked together to build the wall of the figures. Many of her figures, like this one, are then cast in bronze, using the lost wax process.

Famous for her forged metal sculptures of women, Kathy Whitman-Elk Woman’s (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara) Standing Strong, with my Feet Rooted to Mother Earth portrays a theme often seen in Whitman’s work – strong, proud American Indian women. Whitman said of the materials in this work, "I used steel, stone and recycled materials. I chose these because they represent us as Native women. The steel is tough, strong, resilient; the stone consists of all living beings from Mother Earth; and, the recycled materials are about resourcefulness and taking care of Mother Earth." Also on view is her Dancing with the Heartbeat of my Ancestors created for this exhibit from welded steel, carved stone for the face, and recycled aluminum cans. This figure is performing a Shawl dance, which Whitman described as sharing the "exhilarating joy" of native women. "The connection to our past, to our ancestors, through dance is one of many ways we remain intact with our ancestors, our foundation."

There are two by Retha Walden Gambaro (Muskogee Creek). One, Courage, reflects the artist’s classical training. The figure exudes courage and was said by Gambaro to be "Facing life, calling forth strength of mind and body." The two Gambaro works in this exhibit are part of a series of large marble carvings that were then cast in bronze, which formed a meditation that Gambaro referred to as "Attitudes of Prayer". This series may be viewed as the culmination of her career, in which she sought, in her own words, "to create maximum feeling with minimal detail." At 80 Gambaro created the second one on view, Acceptance, a self-portrait inspired by a walk in the woods one autumn. Stopping to pick up a fallen leaf, she sat on a stump; as she reflected on the seasons and the cycles of life, she was filled with an acceptance for whatever life would bring. She continued to sculpt for a few more years, creating some of her strongest works. She died in late 2013 at the age of 97.

Tammy Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo) first gained fame for her clay pots. Of her work in bronze, two of which are in this exhibition, she said, "Bronze opened another door for my creative expression... because of its durability." Andrea, Garcia’s first figurative bronze, sculpted in 2010 and in MIAC’s permanent collection, appears to be participating in a Butterfly Dance. Sisters, also by Garcia, is a painted, cylindrical bronze representing two women as sisters. It recognizes the kinship indigenous women of the Americas feel toward one another, referring to their women relatives and close friends with the honorific "Sister."

Grace Adorned by mother/daughter team Rose B. Simpson and Roxanne Swentzell of Santa Clara Pueblo was created especially for this exhibit. Swentzell created the ceramic figure and Simpson dressed and adorned it as an homage to women, reflecting their honored position among the Native Americans of the Southwestern US, Mexico, and Central America. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Aztec’s mother God, Tonantzin, fused with the Virgin Mary to become "Our Lady of Guadalupe," a figure that lead Aztecs and other tribes to convert to Catholicism. To this day, Our Lady of Guadalupe remains a powerful, iconographic, and revered figure in Mexico and New Mexico.

History of Sculpture in the Americas

Sculpting in the Americas dates to 5,600 BCE in Brazil and around 3,000 BCE in North America. The dramatic social upheaval and disruption that occurred post-European contact led to widespread destruction of many sculptures by the Spanish conquerors who considered them to be heathen idols. Traditionally sculpting has been a male preserve, especially large and monumental works. Still in the minority, women sculptors have emerged today in both mainstream society and in indigenous American cultures. Courage and Compassion: Native Women Sculpting Women is the first exhibit of its kind, featuring the leading American Indian women sculptors of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Exhibition curator Dr. Letitia Chambers said of the show, "Native American identity is shaped by ways of knowing and being that are of the past but persist to the present; thus there is a strong element of tradition in Native art in the 21st century. However, the 19th and 20th century restraints and battles over what constitutes "authentic" American Indian art are basically over, and Native artists are free to express themselves as artists, integrating indigenous traditions with that of other influences."

Guest Curator Dr. Letitia Chambers, former President and CEO of the Heard Museum, former Ambassador to the United Nations General Assembly and consulting firm CEO, is a collector of Native art and now resides in Santa Fe.

For high resolution exhibition images please contact Steve Cantrell.

Media Contacts:

Steve Cantrell, PR Manager


Dr. Letitia Chambers, Exhibition/Guest Curator



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