The Norman Transcript

June 14, 2013

Museum exhibit showcases Hopi traditions

By Caitlin Schudalla
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art is providing visitors a special, in-depth look at the ancient art, craftsmanship and culture surrounding the Hopi tradition of katsina (kachina) carvings with “Hopituy (Hoe-pih-TOO-ee): Kachinas from the Permanent Collections,” opening June 18.

Commonly referred to as “kachina dolls”, the figures are called tihu (TEE-hoo) in Hopi, and will be displayed with other ornamented baskets and pottery, totaling 170 pieces.

“In order to do something respectful and genuinely useful for the community, I wanted to just take a group of katsina figures and try to understand just that group,” said Bialac Assistant Curator of Native American and Non-Western Art Heather Ahtone.

Tihu are the Hopi’s artistic renderings of Katsinas — spirit beings who have taught the Hopi how to cultivate crops in their desert homeland. The Hopi pantheon of Katsinas is somewhere between 250-300 spirits, and the upcoming exhibit seeks to examine six Katsinas which summarize the broad range of aesthetics and roles of these spirits.

“Because the Katsinas are so crucial to Hopi survival, they carved effigies of these spirits so that children can — from birth — become familiar with the pantheon of Katsinas. In a traditional environment, katsinas are gifts to children — particularly girls — and also brides. During milestones in a child's life, especially a woman's life, these are appropriate gifts,” Ahtone said.

According to Hopi tradition, the actual Katsina spirits visit the Hopi people from January to July each year, and their visits are marked with special ceremonies and worship. Since the tihu themselves are not used in this worship, crafting and selling tihu to non-Hopi art collectors is not a disrespect to the Hopi religion — though tihu made to be sold likely won’t be entirely traditional.

“The Hopi are actually very happy they have community members who can make a living off of traditional arts, so inaccuracy is not a sacrilege. Tihu are all hand-carved, it's not ‘commercial,’ but if an artist hasn’t been initiated into a particular society, they may not know exactly how a tihu figure should look,” Ahtone said. “Selling tihu is an opportunity for community members to learn and there's no disservice to the religious practices, especially if the income from selling artworks enables artists to provide for their family and travel to participate in the Hopi ceremonies.”

Visitors to the Hopituy exhibit will see that the shapes, colors and patterns of the tihu deal largely with rain, and though at first glance the tihu are strange and perhaps unsettling, those who examine them carefully and read museum materials will discover some imaginative symbolism showing a society’s deep reverance for their surroundings.

Examples of the unique visual symbols are long hair representing rainfall, feathers representing the soft edges of a cumulonimbus cloud (the type containing rain), curved shapes representing corn and dots representing raindrops.

“The dolls are difficult to understand for many people and they are kind of scary, and many of them are supposed to be scary — but even the scary ones are necessary,” Ahtone said. “My hope was to put the dolls in context, we're not teaching the ceremony but we want to promote the objects and display them in a way that makes Hopi culture and this practice more understandable.”

What does that say?

Pronunciations of the six Katsinas on display with rough translations

· Angwusnasomtaqa: (Ahng-WOOS-nah-sohm-ta-kaw), Crow Mother

· Soyokokatsina: (Soy-YO-co-cat-SEE-na) Ogres

· Koyemsi: (COY-yehm-see) Mudheads

· Palhikmana: (Paw-LEEK-mah-nah) Dew-drinking Maiden

· Angaktsina: (Ahn-gawkt-SEE-nah) Long Hairs

· Nimankatsina: (NEE-mahn-cat-SEE-nah) Home Dancers