Bi’po-wa-ve. You are invited to an exceptional, interpretive glimpse of nature symbolism, as reflected in Pueblo ritual embroidery. A new exhibit opening at the Poeh Cultural Center and Museum this month, “Paths of Beauty,” honors the work of two renowned artists: Shawn Tafoya (Santa Clara and Pojoaque pueblos) and Isabel Gonzales (Jemez Pueblo).
Isabel Gonzales lives in San Ildefonso Pueblo (through marriage). Her Jemez Pueblo designs emphasize red, green and black associated with the seasons, cardinal directions and cosmos. Gonzales receives embroidered textile orders from Pueblo members throughout the villages. Shawn Tafoya has received several awards for his embroidery and is also a renowned potter. In Pueblo custom, men often weave and embroider. Tafoya creates ritual dance attire for his family and community members.
Woven expressions of place, prayer, sacred animals and cosmos transform and engage Pueblo people in relationships with the world around them. The interplay between embroidery, native cosmology and the continuity of Pueblo symbolism renews cultural practice—as traditional embroidery designs reflect connections in nature and an expression of Pueblo identity. It is said that each stitch is like the breath of life itself. Pueblo people consider textiles “clothes of the spirits.”
Pueblo cloth is used for ceremonial attire in many Pueblo dances and to create a sanctuary for patron saints during feast days. Embroidered garments used for ceremonial purposes include the manta, a shoulder blanket or wrap-around dress; the dance kilt, either embroidered on the bottom edge or along the two vertical edges; and dance sashes or belts, often woven on a table loom and embroidered.
Embroidery classes are offered to pueblo members at the Poeh Arts Center. Textile traditions date back more than 2,000 years, with yarn made of indigenous cotton, handspun and woven on upright looms into a balanced plain weave. Over the centuries, both men and women were weavers and embroiderers.
The cotton textile used today as a base for an embroidered dance kilt or manta is monk’s cloth, a commercial cotton cloth woven in either a plain or “balanced” weave. Pueblo embroiderers often process commercially produced yarn—wool or acrylic—by re-spinning to tighten it, then soaking the yarn in water to set it.
One unique aspect of Pueblo embroidery is the stitch. Embroidery designs are in a negative pattern, with large areas in dark colors forming the background, and the white unembroidered areas forming the design. The unique stitch shown below enables the embroiderer to cover a large area with the background color.
Spirituality and Nature
Songs, dances and prayer connect to the larger Pueblo cosmos. The foundation of Pueblo religious life is maintenance of harmony, or balance, within the context of nature. Symbolism, reflected by embroidered designs, honors relationships with mountains, rain, plants, butterflies, clouds, flowers and corn, as well as the dance plazas. In the words of Shawn Tafoya:
They are the clothing of the gods and dancers,
They are the clothing of our sacred spaces,
our holy places, our homes, and us.
They are powerful and sacred,
They are beautiful.
Paths of Beauty: Isabel Gonzales and Shawn Tafoya
Opening Reception: Aug. 20, 5 to 8 p.m. Free.
The exhibit’s curators are Lucy Fowler Williams (University of Pennsylvania) and Antonio Chavarría (Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe). To learn more, see “The Language of Contemporary Eastern Pueblo Embroidery,” www.museum.upenn.edu; and the School for Advanced Research’s website: http://sarweb.org/embroidery
The Poeh Center has extended an open invitation for people to come explore the meaningful contexts of Pueblo embroidery and pottery, eat Pueblo food and celebrate with the Pueblo communities. The Poeh Cultural Center and Museum is located at Pojoaque Pueblo, 15 miles north of Santa Fe, just off Highway 285/84, 78 Cities of Gold Road (www.poehcenter.org).
Susan Guyette, Ph.D., is of Métis heritage (Micmac Indian/Acadian French) and a planner specializing in cultural tourism, cultural centers, museums and native foods. She is the author of Sustainable Cultural Tourism: Small-Scale Solutions; Planning for Balanced Development; and the co-author of Zen Birding: Connect in Nature. email@example.com