SANTA FE, N.M. — For centuries, New Mexico has been home to a distinctive tradition of painting Catholic saints in simple portraits, rather than adhering to the elaborate styles of European art.
Some critics have said the paintings resulted from untrained Spanish artists doing the best they could. But the curator of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art never accepted that argument. Instead, Robin Farwell Gavin believes artists chose to adopt artistic traditions of Native Americans instead of the baroque styles brought to early New Mexico from the outside world.
That illustrates the message of cultural exchange behind "Converging Streams: Art of the Hispanic and Native American Southwest," an exhibit that runs through September at the museum. Part of the show will come down at the end of August.
"If we really start to open our eyes to what's happening with these art forms, it's bringing us a whole different aspect of the story of the history here in New Mexico," said Gavin, who curated the exhibit with independent curator William Wroth.
The show and a book by the same title examine contributions made by diverse cultures to early New Mexico architecture, weaving, woodwork, leatherwork, textiles, pottery, metalwork and religious art.
New Mexico today is known for its santos, or carved statues of saints, and retablos, two-dimensional paintings of saints on wooden boards.
"Converging Streams" includes both a 15th-century ancestral pueblo wall painting and a traditional 19th-century Hispanic retablo that show rigidly posed flat figures, outlined in black, holding ceremonial items.
The earliest saints from New Mexico were painted in a three-dimensional baroque style, then artists progressively moved to the more abstract, two-dimensional style, Gavin said.
From a traditional Western point of view, they seemed to be going backward.
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"Our premise here is that this style is a choice," Gavin said. "It wasn't because the artist didn't know how to draw or how to carve, but that they were actually choosing to use a style that was part of the community in which they were living and had been developed by that community."
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It flourished in a period when much of the Americas was breaking away from Spain and its political and social structure, including artistic guilds "which were telling them how to paint, what to paint, how to carve, what to carve," she said.
"That is what I think the art is telling us here, is that we're saying no, we're not Spanish, we're New Mexican. They were making a statement: This is who we are," Gavin said.
Estevan Rael-Galvez, a former New Mexico state historian who now heads the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, said people should look beyond "very static notions of identity."
He sees New Mexico as unique because of the particular cultures that converged in the Spanish colonial period.
Still, "every place in what we now call the United States of America had indigenous people. ... There are mestizo stories or hybrid stories everywhere in the United States. As a society we aren't trained to look at those things, to understand what created them, what are the consequences of people coming together," said Rael-Galvez, whose training is in cultural anthropology.
One scholar traced the origins of the exhibit's hide painting of Our Lady of the Assumption of Santa Maria la Redonda to a print distributed throughout Mexico, Gavin said. The artist who copied it, however, added a rainbow, step-terrace motifs and pueblo-style pots — images from Native American art.
Nineteenth-century crosses show not the crucifixion but designs of lightning bolts and feathers. One combines a European rosette with lightning and stepped-terrace patterns.
Leather pieces started out as Apache parfleches — decorated containers similar to saddlebags — but became covers for records of Roman Catholic baptisms and marriage and burial records and a carrying case for a retablo.
"Even though they were made by Native Americans, they were also obviously treasured by Spanish colonists and used to cover some of their most important documents," Gavin said.
Long before the Spanish, skilled weavers from Southwestern tribes used cotton and vegetable fibers. The Spanish brought wool, which was quickly adopted.
A textile display traces a diamond design common to pieces of a cotton textile from Mexico, a Zuni blanket, a Hopi dress, a serape from Mexico, a Navajo saddle blanket, a Rio Grande blanket woven by early New Mexico Spanish weavers and a broken ancestral puebloan pot. The items date from as early as 1300 to the late 1800s.
Sometimes the diamond design encapsulates an equilateral cross. While the cross was a religious symbol to the Spanish, the equilateral cross dates well before the colonial period to represent the four directions.
Even the naja, a horseshoe-shape familiar as the focal piece of Navajo squash blossom necklaces, was neither Navajo nor Spanish. It comes from the Islamic tradition, where it's a symbol for good luck, Gavin said.
The squash blossom itself started out as pomegranate blossoms, a design brought to the New World by the Spanish but originally Islamic, according to Gavin. The exhibit displays a Navajo squash blossom necklace and a Spanish necklace of shorter, fatter pomegranate blossoms.
All those cultures contributed to New Mexico's art, Gavin said.
"You really can tell when you're looking at a New Mexican piece," she said. "That sense of place developed out of all these diverse influences."
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