First time visitors to the US often travel with (somewhat) irrational fears. Will gangsters shoot it out while de-boarding the plane? Our global cultural projection of carnage, sex and twisted history runs deep. In 1991 a group of Nicaraguan women working in the Matagalpa black pottery tradition traveled with some of this baggage to visit Tewa black pottery descendants of Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso, NM.
The Potters for Peace facilitated trip was predicated on a question: What would happen if women from very different rural backgrounds who work in a similar style were left alone together for a week? PFP’s Ron Rivera served as translator and guide.
Hand-built “black pottery” is burnished to a high gloss, pit fired, and smoked until jet black. Women throughout the Americas and parts of Africa have made black pottery for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Modern North American black pottery tends to be much more polished and lower fired (thus blacker) than originally. It’s now considered primarily a decorative art.
Black potters are intensely proud of their work. Maria Martinez is perhaps the most famous North American practitioner. Mexicans might counter that Doña Rosa Real who revived the Oaxaca black pottery tradition in the 1950′s holds the ‘most famous’ title. Maria Martinez resuscitated the almost forgotten Pueblo style while working with archeologist Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett at the Frijoles Canyon excavation in 1908. Maria’s pottery even made Bernard Leach eat crow “…it belonged to America. North America – it was arresting.” (An irrelevant point, but I couldn’t resist.)
But women of the northern mountainous coffee growing region of Matagalpa, Nicaragua say their black pottery making reaches back, unbroken from mother to daughter for over a millennium. Their work occupies a highly regarded position in the Nicaraguan ceramic world. Like other black potters they tend to stick together. And like other rural Nicaraguan’s they rarely travel far from home.
The New Mexico trip was an eye opener for everyone involved. The Tewa’s were blown away at the delicacy of form and the superior mirror black polish of the Matagalpan pottery. The Nica’s were astonished at the Tewas’ playful variations of form and gloss, and at their astronomical prices.
But another thing perplexed the Nica’s. One of them took Ron aside. If these women they had come to visit were real “American Indians,” where were the feathers and tomahawks?
The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez. Susan Peterson. Kodansha International/New York. 1977.