The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art showcases the art of Tonita Peña and Joe Herrera and other Pueblo painters.
The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art showcases the art of the art of Tonita Peña, Joe Herrera and other Pueblo painters.
Tonita Peña (San Ildefonso/cochiti, 1893-1949) went to live with her aunt and uncle at Cochiti Pueblo when she was a child after the death of her mother. She lived there for the rest of her life. She had begun painting at an early age, bucked tradition and became the only woman in the first group of Native easel painters, the San Ildefonso Self-taught Group. It included Julian Martinez (1897-1943), Alfonso Roybal (1898-1955), Abel Sanchez (1899-1971), Crescencio Martinez (18791918), Encarnación Peña (1902-1979) and others.
Generations in Modern Pueblo Painting: The Art
of Tonita Peña and Joe Herrera, an exhibition at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma-norman, traces her and her son’s impact on modern art. The exhibition is the first significant exploration of her work since the 1930s. It has been curated by W. Jackson Rushing III, chair in Native American Art at the university. The exhibition closes April 8.
“It is my contention,” Rushing says, “that Peña and Herrera were key figures in the development of modern art in the United States and that there is no satisfying explanation for their exclusion from surveys on the subject. On the contrary, for several reasons, a critical examination of their aesthetic achievements and legacy reshapes our understanding of American modernism.”
Peña painted the ceremonial dancers of her tradition that were available for public viewing. She isolated the figures against a plain background, making them timeless and allowing them to convey the spiritual nature the dancers embodied in Pueblo life. She painted at a time when the ceremonials and all Native traditions were sought out by tourists and, at the same time, under attack by the government. “Pagan Indian dances” were condemned. In fact, for many years, the Indian Bureau prohibited the teaching of Native customs in its American Indian Schools.
Peña preserved the traditions in a different medium but suffered because she was a woman in a man’s world and because she painted for the tourist trade.
Her son, Sam Aquero, is quoted in an article by Marilee Jantzer-white in The American Indian Quarterly: “There are a lot of details that the young people today are not familiar with. I think she [Tonita] had a strong feeling for preserving our traditional things…she was concerned and that was one way of preserving those things. Unfortunately, the tribal members didn’t see it that was, at the time. And the other thing, too was that especially the male folks take exception to a woman knowing all those things…”
Another son, Joe Hilario Herrera (1923-2001), followed in his mother’s artistic footsteps basing his paintings on Pueblo ceremonial traditions. He was also influenced by exposure to art deco and cubism and studied briefly with Raymond Jonson, founder of the Transcendental Painting Group.
Rushing comments, “After 1950, his ‘heritage’ primitivism—an intentionally reductive aesthetic that evokes the prehistoric foundations of culture— incorporated rock art images and other ancient iconographies into a hybrid modernism.” Herrera’s painting, Germination, 1982, draws from tradition and is freely expressed in a modernist way.
Raymond Jonson (1891-1982) had begun working with an airbrush in the ’30s to create a uniform surface on his paintings and taught Herrera the technique. Herrera, in turn, taught it to Helen Hardin
(Santa Clara, 1943-84), daughter of Pablita Velarde (Santa Clara, 1918-2006) who had studied with Tonita Peña.
Gilbert Atencio (San Ildefonso, 1930-1995) was a nephew of the great Pueblo potter Maria Martinez (San Ildefonso, 1887-1980). His early paintings are in the flat style seen in Peña’s work, but his later pieces became more abstract.
In The Delight Makers in the Process of Making Medicine, 1964, his figures follow the shapes of the abstract forms that make up the composition.
Rushing explains, “…Generations in Modern Pueblo Painting demonstrates how the historical temporality of modernism unfolds through heritage as much as through dialectical progress.”
1. 2. Joe Hilario Herrera (See Ru) (Cochiti, 1920-2001), Germination, 1982, watercolor on paper, 25¼ x 30" Tonita Peña (Quah Ah) (San Ildefonso/cochiti, 1893-1949), Kossa, watercolor on paper, 15¼ x 11"
3. Joe Hilario Herrera (See Ru) (Cochiti, 1920-2001), Anasazi Gathering, ca. 1980s, watercolor on paper, 31 x 41"
4. Tonita Peña (Quah Ah) (San Ildefonso/cochiti,
1893-1949), Cochiti Corn Dance, early 1930s, watercolor on paper, 21 x 21"
5. Gilbert Atencio (Wa Peen) (San Ildefonso, 19301995), The Delight Makers in the Process of Making Medicine, 1964, watercolor on paper, 17¼ x 36”
6. Pablita Velarde (Santa Clara, 1918-2006), Inside Santa Clara Pueblo, 1978, watercolor on paper,
30 x 25"
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman. James T. Bialac Native American Art Collection, 2010.