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Thunderbird Jewelry as Contemporary Art Form

Thunderbird Jewelry of Santo Domingo Pueblo, curated by folklorist J. Roderick Moore and by Wheelwright Museum curator Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle, should be seen as a contemporary art installation in its own right. Three hundred necklaces arranged along the perimeter of the penumbral hogan-inspired Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe make a symphony with sub themes, changes of tempo, pitch, and instrument submitting to a grand arc. Maybe for us, the best analogy is with genetic or digital code. This would be perfect material for some high-tech cultural analytics, defined by Lev Manovich as the use of computational methods for the analysis of cultural data sets and flows.

Santo Domingo Thunderbird jewelry

Santo Domingo Thunderbird jewelry

The experience of viewing is not unlike being immersed in a sea of Donald Judd’s aluminum boxes, where one is caught up in dizzying replication with differences that originate in some kind of logic, yet exceed our conceptual grasp, throwing us into rich real-time bodily experience. Or, perhaps it is like watching an animated film in which forms grow, mutate, break and re-combine to our infinite delight. A wishbone-horseshoe-squash blossom-crescent becomes swastika, then thunderbird on a white background in the shape of hearts, lozenges, octagons. Thunderbird lifts out of the background, looks left, looks right, raises wings, lowers them, grows an outline, a checkerboard pattern, curved lines – he becomes Slovakian. The lines step and straighten, become Aztecan. A new blue appears, not turquoise but French. Pink tail feathers come and go. Thunderbird takes on the guise of an imperial federal eagle during WWII with wings more uplifted. Belatedly, yellow arrives and a butterfly appears, the only one. Thunderbird is gone. If the exhibition design had been a bit more rigorous, with the display cases homogenized and signage minimized and standardized, the beauty and variety of the objects would shine even more.

Santo Domingo Thunderbird jewelry

Santo Domingo Thunderbird jewelry

This, nonetheless delightful, formal story is of course also a social and material story of adaptation and cultural hybridity, in a word, modernity. The thunderbird appliqué jewelry type that originated in the 20’s and died out in the 50’s is the result of improvisation by Santo Domingo people, who were responding to the scarcity of traditional materials and the accessibility of cheap new plastics and new tourist markets. As turquoise mines were taken over by American companies, causing the material to become prohibitively expensive, a mosaic technique utilizing little scavenged chunks developed. Traditional shell was replaced by locally available animal bone; during WWII pinon pitch was replaced by duco cement; battery casings, records, combs,any household plastic provided black and other colors. The location of Santo Domingo right on the railroad between Santa Fe and Albuquerque meant maximum exposure to the tourist economy, likely a very mixed blessing, although to this day the pueblo is renowned among native peoples for maintaining its own traditional culture, making them a role model in this era of globalization.

In 1924 the Southwest Indian Fair and Crafts exhibition, now SWAIA, issued a statement that “all articles, in order to compete for prizes, must be strictly Indian in material, handicraft, and decoration.” What priceless irony for modern commerce, force of corruption itself, to unselfconsciously dictate purity and tradition, to pretend to turn back the wheel of time! With a museum exhibition and pending catalogue the Wheelwright is now exposing this historically undervalued work, making new value claims which may ultimately be reflected in new monetary value. A classic red and white checkered tablecloth covers a dining table display in the very center of the exhibition, echoing a historical photograph of a woman working on a necklace at such a table, indicating that family values are front and center, along with creativity and adaptability. Right now you can purchase an authentic partially plastic thunderbird necklace for $450 to $900 in the Wheelwright gift shop. Not long ago they sold for a couple hundred.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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