The pueblo modernism of Ma Pe Wi

One artist's agency in the American Southwest

Velino Shije Herrera (Ma Pe Wi), Design, Tree and Birds, c. 1930, watercolor on paper, 25.25 x 17.75 inches (Newark Museum of Art, Gift of Amelia Elizabeth White, 1937, 37.216). Speakers: Dr. Adriana Greci Green and Dr. Beth Harris

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Shije Herrera, Design

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Key points

  • In the early 20th century, there was new interest in Pueblo art and culture from modernist artists and the growing tourist industry. This came at a time when Indian Schools endangered Native American cultural traditions in an effort by the U.S. government to eliminate Native American ways of life and replace them with mainstream American culture.
  • Beginning in 1918, informal painting classes were offered at the Santa Fe Indian School, and Velino Shije Herrera, along with fellow artists Awa Tsireh and Fred Kabotie, developed a genre of watercolor painting on paper that connected European styles with indigenous traditions of painting. Works like Design, Tree and Birds blended traditional symbolism and forms, with elements of modernist painting to create a hybrid for non-native audiences.
  • As modernist Pueblo painting grew in popularity, some of its supporters also worked to protect the rights of the Puebloan peoples, supporting organizations like The Indian Rights Association, which helped raise awareness about the devastation created through government policies and practices.

Go deeper

This work of art at the Newark Museum

The Modernist-Inspired Watercolors of a Pioneering Pueblo Painter

The legacy of Indian Schools, at NPR

See Pueblo pottery painting from the 1930s

Explore primary sources on government policies towards Native Americans in the early 20th century

Learn more about the Indian Rights Association

Velino Shije Herrera at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Pablita Velarde’s Paintings of Traditional Pueblo Culture

Jessica L. Horton and Janet Catherine Berlo, “Pueblo Painting in 1932 Folding Narratives of Native Art into American Art History” in A Companion to American Art, edited by John Davis, Jennifer A. Greenhill, and Jason D. LaFountain (Wiley, 2015)

More to think about

Modern Native American artists like Clarissa Rizal and Jamie Okuma have blended their native traditions with contemporary style or meaning. What makes a work of art “traditional”? What other examples can you think of where an artist has blended their own culture with mainstream forms or techniques?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.