The paintings of Awa Tsireh (1898−1955), who was also known by his Spanish name, Alfonso Roybal, represent an encounter between the art traditions of native Pueblo peoples in the southwestern United States and the American modernist art style begun in New York in the early twentieth century. The son of distinguished potters, Awa Tsireh translated geometic pottery designs into stylized watercolors that feature the ceremonial dancers and practices of Pueblo communities. But Awa Tsireh’s work is more than an amalgam of traditional and modernist design. At a time when the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs attempted to restrict Pueblo cultural and religious practices, the watercolors of Awa Tsireh and other Pueblo artists helped to affirm the importance of ceremonial dance and tirual to cultural survival.
Awa Tsireh’s paintings quickly found an audience among the artists, writers, and archaeologists who descended on Santa Fe in great numbers in the late 1910s and 1920s. Painter John Sloan and poet Alice Corbin Henderson took a particular interest and arranged for his watercolors to be exhibited in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere. Henderson shared with the young Pueblo painter books on European and American modernism and Japanese woodblock prints, as well as South Asian miniatures and ancient Egyptian art that provided soure material for his stylized paintings. In this way, he redefined contemporary Pueblo art and created a new, pan-Pueblo style.
The paintings in this exhibition were donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1979 by the Hendersons’ daughter, Alice H. Rossin.
The Basket Dance, which symbolizes fertility and crop growth, comprises two parts: a slower, standing dance, and a faster portion during which a line of women kneel and scrape sticks over baskets, while the men shake gourd rattles, both creating a mesmerizing whirring sound. Men wear ceremonial attire adorned with evergreens symbolizing new life. Headdresses are made with either yucca stalks or squash blossoms and adorned with feathers.
The Buffalo Dance, or Game Dance, is a sacred ceremony of the San Ildefonso Pueblo. It is celebrated annually on January 23rd, the Pueblo’s feast day, and open to the public. Animal dances typically occur in the winter months when summer food sources have fun low and hunting becomes necessary. The dance features two buffalo, a Buffalo Mother, two antelope, dozens of deer, and numerous side dancers. Animal dances honor the spirit of the creature, who is believed to be man’s brother.
Buffalo Mother, Buffalo Dance
- ca. 1917-1925
- Not on view
- sheet: 12 x 8 1⁄2 in. (30.5 x 21.6 cm)
- Credit Line
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Corbin-Henderson Collection, gift of Alice H. Rossin
- Mediums Description
- watercolor and pencil on paperboard
- Performing arts – music – castinets
- Dress – ceremonial – Indian dress
- Object Number
- Linked Open Data
- Linked Open Data URI