The basket and pottery rooms at the Arts and Culture Museum were dimly lit. It was a welcome relief from Santa Fe’s open landscape and hot sun. It’s the kind of place that could bring you to a whisper just by walking in. Light can do that, or lack of it. At least, that’s what I thought. Not so much for the group of high school students in hoodies who were horsing around. They were probably enjoying each other’s flirty company more than beholding 100 year old ceramics on a forced field trip.
Who could blame them? Observing old baskets in a dark room when you’re 16 sounds like a snoozer. Still, at times I saw them staring through the glass cases, writing things in their notebooks.
Maybe they were amazed, like I was, at baskets dating back to 1856 but looked as if they were recently made. The structures remained remarkably sturdy. They somehow looked more well-used than old. The layers of weaving were smooth. With no faults perceptible to my scanning eye, it was hard believe they weren’t spun by a machine.
The white index cards beside these works of art contained, dates, tribes, location. What struck me most was seeing this.
Artist: Little Bobby’s Wife
Even if we don’t always know the artist’s name, scholars can “read a basket” by design, form, utility. It speaks without the artist. It made me consider the word identity and source, a humble place, where things were built to last.
I thought about the 89 cent blue Lucite bowl that I have in my kitchen at home. Durable but totally disposable, a Wal-Mart special. Somehow I don’t think my chip bowl will ever end up in a dimly lit room. Most likely, a landfill when I tire of its color. God bless the crafts people who wake up every morning and do their thing or else the museums of our future might look like a cheap aisle of Target relics. Made me appreciate the baskets I brought back from Eritrea when I was in the Peace Corps even more.
I walked by every case, steadying my hand for a no-flash photo. The curves and shadows of these clay and woven vessel shapes in that light was… well, sensual. earthy. full. If the sound of that doesn’t make you strut a little taller in a pair of cowboy boots, than I don’t know what will.
I was almost stepping out of the museum when I stopped one last time in a room that highlighted contemporary Native American arts: Abstract painting. What a contrast! I was reading the wall text about an elder who felt stifled by traditional crafts. He encouraged artists to break out of traditional molds. I thought wow, that’s so brave and fascinating- coming up against all that tradition. Grappling with honoring it and changing the face of what is expected of a Native American artist.
Right next to the text was an incredibly intricate portrait of him woven from tiny beads. It looked as distinct as a photograph. There must have been over a dozen of colors to shade and create this portrait. I raised my camera and took a picture. It was blurry, so I took another and that’s when I heard the voice.
“Excuse me, Ma’am.”
I looked up, delighted to see an exceptionally handsome young docent coming toward me.
“No photographs please. (beat) You know, Native American.” He flashed me a smile as he stressed the last two words.
I turned exactly the color of my shirt: pink.
I gasped. I slapped my hand against my chest.
“OH MY GOD! I am so sorry.” I exclaimed
“No problem.” His demeanor was easy going, friendly.
“I usually pay attention to those kinds of things.” I said as I walked back with him toward his desk. “But I didn’t see any signs– oh would you look at that, here’s an 8 ½ by 11 yellow sign right here on your desk.”
He laughed. I laughed. I was now pinker than my shirt and an instant armpit sweat machine.
“I am really so sorry.” What a faux pas. It wasn’t so much “no photos” as it was, “you know, Native American.” But of course.
Two things immediately flashed through my mind. 1) I tried to recall the first time I learned that Native Americans believed photos stole their souls. I swear I learned that when I was five years old watching a Grizzly Adams episode. Maybe Nakoma didn’t want his picture taken? I can’t remember for sure. I could be wrong that it was that show, but somewhere in my TV childhood I learned that there is something spiritual to consider. Something that should be appreciated not captured. It would make sense that a photo has the power to diminish a moment as much as it can capture one.
I did see a Native American craft store in downtown Santa Fe that had a polite sign in the window. It asked tourists not to take photos of the crafts. It was phrased in such a way as if the spirits of the objects were asking for some privacy. I think culturally this is an old custom that has changed with the times. But still, walk away with photos I wasn’t supposed to take from a Native American museum? Bad. Bad. Bad.
Because this was the second thing that had flashed into my mind.
Remember Bobby and Peter found a native Tiki at a construction site and started having bad luck? Yep. First a heavy wall hanging fell and nearly missed Bobby’s head in bed. Then Greg wore it and had a near fatal wipe out on his surf board. Finally Peter ended up with a giant spider on his chest. The bad luck could only be undone by bringing the idol back to an ancient burial ground which they did in their awesome bell bottom 70s pants.
I walked outside. With bright sunshine overhead, I sat on the wall of the garden and deleted 15 photographs from that museum. Bye-bye vessels and baskets. I guess you are only ours to see in person.
The docent didn’t ask me to do that. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could have just kept them, he seemed so friendly. No doubt, I was not the first tourist to get some photos given their lo-fi signs.
Television wilderness and Polynesian moral-dramas aside, I felt obligated to get these photos off my camera. It just didn’t seem right to keep them. My brother John and I often joke about questionable bad luck vibes around an object, referring to it as, “Ooo Tiki.”
I didn’t want to walk around with that feeling. There are somethings in life that are not ours to hold on to.