The pueblo modernism of Ma Pe Wi

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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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?

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in an office at the Newark Museum, looking at a painting by Velino Shije Herrera, also known as Ma Pe Wi, from the Zia Pueblo.

[0:14] It’s such an interesting time to be looking at Native American art at the early 20th century, because you have all of these influences coming together. You have the interest from modernist artists on the East Coast, you have a burgeoning tourist industry in the Southwest, and you have Pueblo artists who are painting from their Indigenous traditions.

Dr. Adriana Greci Green: [0:34] It’s this moment in the teens where you have the intersection of all these various forces. So, tourism in the Southwest has been happening for at least 20 years, bringing a tourist gaze to the artwork. You have the influence of government and schools, where there is instruction in a Euro-American sense that’s imposed on Pueblo children, and most importantly, you have Indigenous traditions, in this case of painting.

[1:02] The Pueblos are articulated along the Rio Grande in New Mexico, the so-called Rio Grande Pueblos. The artists are really bringing an Indigenous sensitivity and knowledge of painting. Their background is painting on pottery, painting on murals and kivas, and of course even in more ancient times painting on rocks.

[1:23] The first exhibit of Pueblo painters is in 1919, with the Museum of New Mexico. Velino Shije is one of that first core group, along with Fred Kabotie and also Awa Tsireh. They’re the painters that formulate this genre of watercolor painting on paper, which is [a] European tradition of painting but connecting with their own traditions.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] So what I’m seeing looks like a landscape with a sky, with very stylized clouds, a tree in the center, birds in the sky, a sense of movement to some of the birds, [and] the one who seems to be a raptor chasing another bird. Some of the birds appear more stylized, more like symbols.

[2:07] Then we seem to have a ground line with forms that look architectural. And below that, birds that seem to be floating in the water, a horned snake, and flowers that grow out of the water.

Dr. Green: [2:18] Velino is constructing a very modern and decorative landscape populated with all kinds of birds, which are very important in [the] Pueblo world and cosmology. Birds have a lot of significance. Broadly speaking, bird feathers are used for prayers and prayer sticks. And specific bird feathers and specific birds have specific meanings in terms of their seasonality, their territoriality.

[2:46] Are they migrating birds? Are they standing water birds, like ducks? Are they raptors? There’s a whole constellation here that he’s representing.

[2:54] What the genius is is that he’s pulling from this pantheon of Pueblo pottery. Some more ancient, and some very contemporary. There’s a play here on the abstraction that is inherent in Pueblo design of bird forms, of architectural forms, of clouds.

[3:14] He is taking that abstraction and creating a landscape for a non-Native viewer with that modernist sensibility, with that Art Deco aesthetic. The artists are in conversation with the modernist artists who have been discovering them from their perspective, and promoting them.

Dr. Harris: [3:33] This is a moment, too, when those modernist artists — people like Marsden Hartley and John Sloan — are also working to protect the rights of the Puebloan people.

Dr. Green: [3:43] Amelia Elizabeth White, who owned this piece along with many other Pueblo paintings, was very much involved in this Indian Rights Association that was working to let outsiders — like people in New York City — know about what was going on in the Southwest in terms of the expropriation of Native land and other impinging on Indigenous rights.

[4:11] Modernist artists really find points of aesthetic connection with these various Pueblo artistic expressions, and they champion these artists.

[4:20] Velino Shije here is really being creative and innovative in pushing this Pueblo graphic tradition, but he’s also inspired by the consumers, the modernist artists, this Art Deco aesthetic. He’s inserting his work within that, but it’s completely innovative. He’s pushing this graphic tradition into a new dimension.

[4:41] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Adriana Greci Green and Dr. Beth Harris, "The pueblo modernism of Ma Pe Wi," in Smarthistory, August 4, 2020, accessed June 23, 2024,