Claudia Mitchell is a potter from Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. Before gathering clay, she expresses her gratitude to the Clay Mother, Earth, through prayers and offerings. Mitchell also gives thanks to the women who came before her, especially her grandmother Lucy M. Lewis, a highly regarded potter. Mitchell incorporates pottery shards from previous generations into her own work, grinding them into a powder for added strength. She believes that her vessels bring the spirit of these people back to life, connecting the past and present in her pottery.
Mitchell is now involved in a groundbreaking exhibition called “Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This exhibition is unique because it is community curated by 68 Pueblo potters, artists, and cultural leaders. Instead of using the traditional museum label style, the labels in this exhibition highlight the voices and perspectives of the Pueblo people. The exhibition first debuted at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe and is now continuing at the Vilcek Foundation in Manhattan.
The idea for the exhibition originated at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. The goal was to have at least one curator from each Native community involved in the exhibition. To achieve this, the staff visited Pueblo communities and invited curators to select clay works to be interpreted in their own ways. This exhibition challenges the Euro-American business-as-usual approach by involving Native communities in interpreting their own material culture.
This shift in practice represents a larger movement in museums to work alongside Native communities, document objects, and expand Indigenous peoples’ access to collections. The collaboration in “Grounded in Clay” is unprecedented, with many potters carrying on ancestral traditions. The exhibition provides an intimate look at the personal and emotional dimensions of Pueblo pottery, which sustains the people culturally, spiritually, and psychically.
The exhibition features over 50 distinctive pieces, including water jars, storage jars, bowls, and bean pots. The colors and patterns of the pottery reflect the landscapes of the Southwest, with shades of orange, red, and tan. Intricate designs inspired by clouds, lightning, and animals bring symbolism and meaning to the vessels. The age and wear of the pottery tell stories of their use and love over the centuries.
The exhibition also includes commissioned works by contemporary Pueblo artists in different mediums. These works tackle issues of industrial and environmental exploitation of sacred Indigenous sites. The exhibition seeks to amplify Native voices and experiences in the museum space, challenging the traditional role of curators and bringing a more inclusive and diverse perspective.
In conclusion, “Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a groundbreaking exhibition curated by Pueblo potters, artists, and cultural leaders. It challenges traditional museum practices and aims to amplify Native voices and perspectives. The exhibition showcases beautiful and meaningful Pueblo pottery that connects the past, present, and future.