In the years of 1895 and 1896, some Pueblo communities were paid a surprise visit by a young “educated tourist” and researcher from Hamburg
Aby Warburg, appearing mainly in a dark three-piece suit, made his way through Arizona and New Mexico with a free ticket for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad
As an art historian, Warburg has many questions about the motifs on the vessels of the master potters - which often depicted women and sometimes transgender people
His curiosity is in contrast to a Pueblo policy of privacy about their ritual knowledge.
Today, the Pueblos have their own preservation offices for the protection of their cultural heritage
Date of production: Around 1890–95
Acquisition: In 1895 from Abraham Spiegelberg, Santa Fé
Acquisition by the museum: donated in 1902 by Aby Warburg
Probably from San Ildefonso, New Mexico, USA
Ø 31.2 cm, H 31 cm
The number 24 was assigned by Warburg himself and is also found in his original inventory list. B 6098 is the inventory number given by the MARKK
Knowledge and respect
Does knowledge lose its power when shared? No, but as the Pueblo and other regional communities see it, ritual knowledge cannot be acquired without the responsibility that comes along with it. Warburg was not the only one interested in them and their art at the time. The high arid plains were teeming with explorers and tourists from Europe and the USA. Early on, Native Americans resisted encroachment from outside. In some villages, Pueblo authorities had issued bans on photography as early as the 1920s. But from the shelves of curiosity dealers and via collectors, objects found their way into museums; they were now considered "ethnographic objects" or "art" and were subject to scientific research.
Exhibition Lightning Symbol and Snake Dance Aby Warburg and Pueblo Art at the MARKK, 2022
The Pueblo potters had to cope with the new market economy. They found creative solutions to protect ritual knowledge and still meet the external demand.
This jar, for example, is very similar to vessels used exclusively in ceremonies. However, it was never used ritually, but only made for sale.
Snakes and serpents are a recurring theme in the Pueblo cosmos and represent, among other things, the cycle of water. Aby Warburg interpreted them as an expression of symbolic fear.
The stepped cloud symbol is also found in many variations in Pueblo art. Clouds bring the rain that is so vital for the arid region.
Aby Warburg is considered the founder of iconology. For Pueblo potters, the decorative symbols on their works are part of an entire world view and identity. Alfonso Ortiz of Ohkay Owingeh was among the first cultural anthropologists to come from Pueblo communities and bring his own perspective to the scholarship. Today, Pueblo artists speak for themselves.
The Hopi and other Pueblo groups regard many religious objects as sacred. Some are even considered animate, such as the headdresses of the Katsina dancers, which outsiders call “masks”. Hopi reject the term mask. Instead, they speak of kwaatsi (“friends”) – subjects with their own personality and agency.
Traders and missionaries sold “Katsina friends”, prayer sticks and other religious paraphernalia to museums and collectors worldwide, including Aby Warburg. The Hopi Cultural Preservation Office (HCPO) has long opposed the trade and display of these sacred items. In consultations, the HCPO and the MARKK were able to identify some of these objects in the museum’s collection. In the exhibition they were displayed only as "visual blanks" to make visitors aware of this issue.
What is certain is that the ceramic vessel today tells at least two stories: it is part of the cultural heritage of the Pueblo communities, and at the same time part of Aby Warburg's legacy.