Long before John Wesley Powell steered his boats down the rapids and mapped the Grand Canyon for the US Geological Survey, another set of intrepid explorers had walked, mapped, documented, and guided travelers through the entire Colorado River system. Climb up to the hidden Audubon Gallery on the Fourth Floor of the American Museum of Natural History before January 12 and get a fresh perspective on pueblo cartography in the special exhibition, A:shiwi A:wan Ulohnanne: Zuni World.
The show features 31 paintings by seven contemporary painters from the Zuni Pueblo of New Mexico – one of the ancient tribes whose ancestors built the cliff dwellings and multistory wonders of the Four Corners.
After 500 years of seeing their sacred places renamed by the conquistadors, Spanish land owners, government mapmakers, and the National Park Service, Zuni cultural leaders thought it was high time to start creating maps that reflected traditional Zuni place names, stories, and symbols. They asked some leading Zuni artists to choose the story, sacred sites, and landscapes that would “map” Zuni cultural history. According to some of the artists in the show, the exercise required them to look at what they knew in an entirely different way.
The Zuni people consider their place of origin to be the Grand Canyon. Back in deep time, the Zuni ancestors were instructed to find “the Middle Place”, so groups set out in journeys to the north, south, east, and west. The northern group, for example, settled in what is now called “Navajo National Monument” and eventually built multistoried dwellings inside the most spectacular red-rock shelter in the American Southwest.
Each painter’s style is different, but when you take it all in, the exploration story is one of fairly mind-blowing proportions – the Zuni ancestors explored the entire Colorado River system, carved petroglyphs in canyons to point travelers to nearby communities, and even journeyed south to the “land of endless summer” –Central America’s coastal communities.
Although the paintings depict myths and symbols in the Southwestern landscapes, East Coast art-lovers should be aware that the Zuni expedition story isn’t fiction: Chaco Canyon’s great archeological sites contain the evidence — tropical shells, stones, Scarlet macaw skeletons, cacao, and the network of banked, engineered roads (circa 850 – 1100 A.D.) that actually lead to many of the places depicted by the Zuni painters.
Geddy Epaloose’s 2006 painting The Middle Place features an aerial view of Zuni’s Middle Village with sacred trails spiking out in all directions. Colorado River by Ronnie Cachini includes the edge of the distant ocean. Other paintings include the Zuni’s version of their Great Flood, the spiritual importance of their salt lake, and even unmarked lines representing some modern paved roads. Unless you’re Zuni, you’ll have to read the captions on each of the paintings.
AMNH has one of the largest collections of Zuni artifacts in the country, and has a good, close working relationship with that pueblo. Entering the Audubon Gallery on the Fourth Floor feels like a sacred space. You’ll be greeted by a hunted deer honored with a necklace of precious stones and ceremonial rods festooned with pieces of traditional Zuni clothing loaned by the painters and their children for us to see while their work is on display in New York.
Make a pilgrimage to this hidden gallery on AMNH’s Fourth Floor and learn about some remarkable people, places, origins, and cartography. (And stop into the First Floor rotunda to see some of the museum’s Chaco Canyon treasures.)
Enjoy this short YouTube video featuring Jim Enote, the director of A:Shiw A:Wan Museum and Heritage Center, who describes the exhibition when it debuted iat the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.