Between 1879 and 1900 the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs established twenty-four off-reservation boarding schools for American Indian children, among them the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico. The schools were intended as a means of absorbing American Indians into the larger society by transforming the children of what were considered savage warriors into fully “civilized citizens.” But since its founding in 1890, the Santa Fe Indian School has served as a major cultural catalyst for the American Indian community throughout the United States, particularly in the fine arts. Through Their Eyes: Paintings from the Santa Fe Indian School, an exhibition opening Sunday at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, focuses on paintings by students who attended the school between 1919 and 1945.
The Santa Fe Indian School has long been considered the birthplace of contemporary American Indian easel painting. Central to its history was the opening in September 1932 of the Art Studio, with a painting program run by the pioneering instructor Dorothy Dunn. Dunn insisted that her students use American Indian subjects and a flat,two-dimensional style derived from rock painting and from the abstract and geometric forms found in traditional painted pottery, beadwork, and basketry. She refused to teach perspective drawing, color theory, and shading techniques developed over the centuries in European painting, preferring that students rely on their natural ability and remembrance of their cultural traditions.
In addition to developing the new painting genre, Dunn also helped to foster an international audience and market for American Indian art. Many of her students went on to successful art careers, among them Allan Houser, Andrew Tsinajinnie, Narciso Abeyta, and Pablita Velarde, all of whom are featured in the Wheelwright’s exhibition. But while much of the scholarship on the Santa Fe Indian School has revolved around patronage and the Santa Fe intellectual community, the purpose of Through Their Eyes is, as its title suggests, to explore how these paintings reflect American Indian life between the wars as seen through the eyes of its youth.
The exhibition was organized by Michelle McGeough, the assistant curator at the Wheelwright Museum, who also wrote the accompanying catalogue.
Through Their Eyes: Paintings from the Santa Fe Indian School · Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe · May 17 to April 18, 2010 · www.wheelwright.org
Image: Untitled by Fred Kabotie (Nayayoma; 1900-1986), 1920-1930. Watercolor on paper, 16 ½ by 22 inches. Collection of Charlotte G. Mittler.