Benji and Shirly Tzuni (Zuni Pueblo), Silver and Turquoise American Indian Bracelet, n.d., silver, turquoise, onyx, 2.5 x 2.75″
In my fantasy, I am going to the Academy Awards, and I know exactly what kind of jewelry to wear. It would not come from Cartier, Tiffany, Bulgari or Van Cleef & Arpels.
It would come from the American Southwest, home to some of the most strikingly original jewelry made by Indigenous peoples, male and female, who live throughout that region and create masterworks that are worn and collected worldwide.
I would start with a silver and turquoise squash blossom necklace by Zuni artist Edith Tsabetsaye, made in the typical “needlepoint” Zuni tradition, so named for the thin needle shapes into which the gems are cut.
Tsabetsaye’s necklace as well as matching earrings and a stunning ring, another flawless example of her stone needlepoint work, are among more than two dozen exquisite pieces of American Indian jewelry soon to go on permanent view on the second floor of the Johnson County Community College Library. The display is the latest in a series of focus areas throughout campus featuring works from the permanent collection of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.
“Once we confirmed plans in 2003 for the construction of the Nerman Museum, I knew we needed to expand our permanent collection,” said Bruce Hartman, the museum’s founding director and chief curator, who retired at the end of 2020, but is overseeing the jewelry installation at the college. “Contemporary Native American art was one of the areas I wanted to represent significantly in the new museum, a decision that placed us at the forefront of contemporary art museums nationwide, as few (if any), were collecting in this field.”
“As jewelry is a major form of artistic expression for many Navajo and Pueblo people, we set about acquiring works by many of the most prominent artists,” Hartman added. “Fortunately, museum patrons Marti and Tony Oppenheimer, along with Mary Davidson, enthusiastically supported our efforts. The extraordinary squash blossom necklace by renowned Zuni artist Edith Tsabetsaye (b. c. 1940) was funded by the Oppenheimers during one of our many trips to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Art Acquisition Fund enabled other important acquisitions.”
Hartman’s well-known expertise in Native American art — he continues to be active in the field as a private collector and consultant — is apparent in his choice selections, which include a powerful but delicate necklace by Lytisileetza Simplicio from the Zuni Pueblo, inspired by the traditional squash blossom necklace, and an exquisite silver and malachite jar adorned with an intricate stamped design by the Navajo artist Norbert Peshlakai, one of three Peshlakai jars in the display.
One of the most distinctive and appealing, aspects of Southwestern Native American jewelry is that it is asexual. Bracelets, rings, pins, belt buckles, earrings and arm bands are worn by whomever likes them, and often the more the merrier. A dynamite, minimalist but bold bracelet by Richard Chavez from San Felipe exemplifies this versatility. Represented by a striking brooch crafted from silver, gold, ironwood and coral, Charles Loloma, a Hopi, is another internationally known jewelry artist, whose works, like Chavez’s, are true collectibles.
Other highlights include Roderick Tenorio’s small but powerful carved turquoise brooch of the face of a Santo Domingo man; an imposing Ketoh (protective bow guard) made from sterling, black sapphires, jade and leather by Keri Ataumbi, who is Kiowa, and Ric Charlie’s Navajo silver and turquoise belt buckle.
The intricate, one-of-a-kind “Reservation Scene Bracelet” by Navajo artists Clarence and Russell Lee and Ervin P. Tsosie’s stunning Navajo pendant in the shape of a stylized bear invite close viewing.
Southwestern peoples wore semi-precious stones such as turquoise for thousands of years. After contact with the Spanish invaders in the 16th century, the Navajo learned their metalsmithing techniques, which they shared with other pueblo dwellers. By the 1860s Navajos were making jewelry that was already of museum quality, and members of the Zuni Pueblo and others followed.
Each pueblo has its own distinctive style and motifs, but the great artists from each group achieve not only technical perfection, but also offer innovations in both design and materials, which they in turn teach to the next generation. These are aesthetic traditions that have only become stronger with time and are truly unique to just one small section of the world. Kansas City is fortunate to have such a great collection of Southwestern Native American jewelry art at the Nerman Museum.
“Imagine students’ and visitors’ surprise when they ascend to the library’s second floor and are greeted by this dazzling array of jewelry,” Hartman said. “We hope it furthers appreciation for contemporary jewelry and Native American art generally, and we hope to continue collecting major works of jewelry by contemporary Native American artists. The Nerman Museum’s contemporary collection perfectly complements the largely historic Native American jewelry collection on view at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.”
At press time the museum expected the installation to be complete by mid/December.
photos by E.G. Schempf. All works from the permanent collection of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas.