In the vaults of the Albuquerque Museum (2000 Mountain Rd. NW) tables run in a line between cases of shelved paintings and other works of art not currently on display. Across these, hundreds of pieces of jewelry are laid out, soon to be mounted and put on display in one of the museum's largest galleries for the opening of American Jewelry from New Mexico, an expansive exhibition of personal adornment bridging styles and millennia.
Curator Andrew Connors (who spent several years working on this exhibition along with guest curator Hannah Mattson) pointed out a beautiful piece laid carefully in an unassuming box. Tightly wound yucca fibers loop into a circle with eyes at the back through which to tie the necklace closed at the neck's base. In the front, two tabs of turquoise are arranged as a centerpiece with abalone shells flanking them on either side. Delicate and striking, the necklace—
Strung along the cord is turquoise sourced from the region, as well as materials traded for 2,000 years ago, the abalone tabs from the Pacific coast. That exchange of material, knowledge and aesthetic values is significant and ubiquitous as cultures endlessly converge in New Mexico. One piece of turquoise, we can see, had a hole drilled into it that wore through, so a second had to be carved out. This speaks to the significance of the stone. The necklace must have been very special, so much so that it was placed and preserved in a cave all those generations ago.
“There's something about jewelry that is just this concentration of human emotions, creativity and, in many cases, value, even in such a small object. It becomes very personal and very totemic for many people,” Connors said. There's a reason, he pointed out by way of example, that we exchange wedding rings as opposed to any other wearable; jewelry pieces have long been “small, impactful, power-laden objects.'
The exhibition takes many of the concepts visible in this tiny yucca fiber necklace and enunciates them as lineages long-running through the work of artists living and making in our state, their creativity extending well beyond the stereotype of what New Mexican jewelry is. “We hope this shows some of the openness and creativity that has happened when artists are shaken out of their old ways and access new materials,” Connors said. For example, there are early pieces of gilded silver and gold made by Mexican artists represented here from the mid-1800s, these skills later clearly transmuted in Navajo and Zuni silversmithing. Then there are pieces by the likes of Ousmane Macina, born in Mali, now living in Albuquerque. A tenth generation (at least) gold and silversmith, Macina brought his skills with him when he moved here 18 years ago, creating beautiful woven and forged silver inlaid with turquoise and tourmaline, effectively “carrying this traditional technology and making it New Mexican,” Connors described. “Jewelers don't just learn from their own cultural group,” he continued, “they share ideas—the idea of pigeonholing is not the way creative individuals live their lives.”
The exchange of material and style is just one sliver of what American Jewelry from New Mexico expresses. There are pieces in the show that clearly materialize narratives—like the work of Diné artist Clarence Lee's bracelet—a pick-up truck gliding along the engraved silver of the cuff, a barrel of water (rendered in turquoise) in the truck bed, wheels that move on pins, a flattened jackrabbit engraved just-barely-visible beneath the truck; dogs chasing behind. Or a large necklace crafted by Japanese-American Motoko Furuhashi, who created a geological cartograhy of New Mexico, with regions mapped onto a brass chain, indicated by their locale’s abundant stone. These are just some of the examples that elicit the range and alchemy of the medium.
I asked Connors if he suspected that this exhibition was pioneering in the scope which with it looks at the craft as it has existed here, from prehistory to the present. “It's hard to know everything,” he began ambiguously. “It's easier to live in a world of stereotypes and generalizations. When you're making generalizations, you have to leave out all the outliers to create an understanding. There is no way to categorize New Mexican jewelry if we're looking at the breadth of it—which is why we decided to call this show American Jewelry.”
For all its scope—from pieces crafted with the most precious and expensive materials to those upcycled from telephone cord, shoes and found objects—the emotional tug of these charms remains innate, creating a unique opportunity to forge connections with such intimate little objects—perhaps out of reach otherwise. “Too often we look past, we don't notice,” Connors said. “It's my goal with every exhibition that I am involved with—I want people to walk away and say, 'I've got to look at the world more richly. I have to be open to things I wasn't formerly interested in.’ ”
Within this exhibition, there are plenty of entry points to discover connection with this medium and the many modes of creative expression within it. American Jewelry from New Mexico opens June 2 and runs until Oct. 14. Every third Thursday of the month, the museum welcomes the public for a free viewing of the galleries and on these days for the duration of this exhibition’s run, jewelers will be giving live demonstrations of their craft. More information on American Jewelry from New Mexico is available online at cabq.