Southwest Indian Painting

Published on May 28, 2014 by Carol

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Southwest Indian Painting

Southwest Native American painting covers a great variety of forms, techniques and media that are not easily classifiable. While all forms must be understood within the context of specific local cultural and temporal traditions, there are common features throughout the Southwest.

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All painting from the region can be viewed as a form of visual prayer, whose specific meaning is closely tied to tradition. Paintings are produced to serve social purposes, from honouring a deity to signifying group solidarity. Because of this, painting from the Southwest has often been mistakenly dismissed as merely utilitarian and decorative.

Southwest Native American painting existed for centuries before European contact. The earliest works are huge paintings of figures in caves and rock shelters dating to c. 4000 BC. Rock art has continued to the present day as a record of historical journeys and events, clan and kinship designations, mnemonic devices, astronomical symbols and images of both supernatural and natural phenomena.

All prehistoric and historic groups have left an extensive record of rock paintings and engravings that can be found at numerous locations throughout the Southwest. Painting still continues in traditional form as a vivid means of expression. Many objects and surfaces are painted: ceramic vessels and figurines, masks, sculpture and carvings (such as kachina dolls; shields, ritual equipment, musical instruments, hide and woven clothing, the human body, sacred chambers, and cliffs and rocks.)

All of these are decorated with vegetable and mineral pigments in representational and abstract forms that show a clear and highly developed understanding of composition as it relates to multi-dimensional surfaces. Painters adapt their compositions to the natural outlines of the materials, incorporating the form with precise drawings.

In general, Southwest painting is dominated by abstract geometric designs or highly conventionalized treatments of natural phenomena, although it is always the essence, rather than the physical characteristics, that is portrayed.

The most naturalistic expression appears on objects used in daily life or in non-ritual situations, such as pottery, followed by ceremonial costumes and masks depicting spirits, and wall paintings inside Pueblo religious structures, called kivas. On the latter, brilliant pigments are applied with a fibre brush to wood, clay or white plastered walls in a dry-fresco technique. Painted kivas occur from c. 1350 onwards, and the most famous are at Awatovi and Kuauá,where deities and religious symbols are painted in a flat style in outline areas without shading or modelling.

Religious objects are always symbolic, using abstract geometrics as signs. Most esoteric are pahos, altars, tablitas, large cloth screens and fetishes. Equally linear or radial in composition, Southwestern religious art is strongly conventionalized, for as it represents gifts of the Holy People, there must be little artistic experimentation. The symbols are often depicted repetitively, a device that produces rhythm, symmetry and balance, while the use of colour produces contrast.

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