Awatovi was once a leading Hopi village on First Mesa. But events stemming from the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 eventually resulted in its demise. Now Awatovi, a National Historic Landmark located on the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona, lies in ruins. But the remains of a Spanish mission church and kiva, painted with murals, are still there. Among the images on the kiva walls is a colorful parrot, a remnant from a time when elaborate trade networks extended from the Southwest into Mexico.
“One particular image or motif that I was using a lot of was parrots,” says artist and educator Linda Lomahaftewa, whose heritage is Hopi and Choctaw. “A lot of parrot feathers are used in ceremonial regalia. I took that parrot that’s on the kiva wall and changed it by using different colors. When I talk about the Awatovi parrot, which is what I call it, of course I have to include the history of that village.”
Rendered blue as the sky in one of Lomahaftewa’s paintings, its breast and wings adorned in golden yellow, the Awatovi parrot is captured in flight against a backdrop of a night sky patterned with stars. It’s not uncommon for Lomahaftewa (pronounced Lo-ma-HAF-ta-wah) to mine the imagery of Hopi and Choctaw culture for her paintings and prints. In fact, it’s an enduring aspect of her work, which can be seen in The Moving Land: 60+ Years of Art by Linda Lomahaftewa, a career retrospective of 77 works in 2,500 square feet of gallery space at the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (through July 17).
Be in School
Lomahaftewa, a longtime Santa Fe resident, has a relationship with IAIA that reaches back to the institute’s early days. A former IAIA student, she was also an instructor at the school, a position she held from the mid-1970s until her retirement in 2017.
“I was one of the first students to attend when it opened in 1962,” says Lomahaftewa, who enrolled as a high school student and graduated from IAIA’s two-year, post-graduate program in 1965. She was among a core group of influential Native artists who got their start at the institution and would go on to achieve acclaim in the art world: T.C. Cannon, Kevin Red Star, Earl Biss, and Alfred Young Man, among them.
“To go to a Native art school like IAIA was a whole new opening for me,” says Lomahaftewa, who grew up in Phoenix. “I always thought I wanted to be a commercial artist. That’s what I was being trained for — a lot of lettering, drawing classes, and illustration.”
But Lomahaftewa, now 73, had an inherent sense of composition, using shapes and patterns in a dynamic way that could translate well to painting. So, under the advice of James McGrath, one of IAIA’s founding members, she enrolled in painting courses in her senior year. “I took to it right away.”
After graduating from IAIA, Lomahaftewa attended the San Francisco Art Institute, along with fellow artists Cannon, Red Star, and Bill Prokopiof. She earned a bachelor of fine arts in painting at SFAI in 1970 and a master’s in 1971.
“Women don’t get as much attention as the male artists do,” says exhibition curator Lara Evans, interim director of IAIA’s Research Center. “But she’s the only one of that bunch that went into higher education and got an MFA.”
One has an almost mythic sense of what San Francisco must have been like in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was ground zero for the counterculture movement: Haight-Ashbury, the Grateful Dead, the Black power movement, the Avalon Ballroom, and antiwar demonstrations set the scene for an idealistic youth movement, as well as its itinerant drug culture. Lomahaftewa kept it all at arm’s length.
“It was the beginning of the hippie movement and peace marches,” she says. “The takeover of Alcatraz, the Vietnam War, all of that was going on. My focus was ‘be in school.’ I had a scholarship, so I chose to be in school and not take my time away and be in protests. But I participated in what I could.”
In November 1969, the Native protest group Indians of All Tribes began a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz, reclaiming the land on which the former federal penitentiary was located for Indigenous peoples under the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Lomahaftewa contributed by submitting artwork to exhibitions mounted in support of the occupation.
About a year after graduating from SFAI, she began teaching, first at Sonoma State University and then at the University of California, Berkeley. “By that time, they were starting to recruit teachers to teach at IAIA, so I came back to Santa Fe,” she says. “That was in 1976.”
Lomahaftewa’s artistic evolution started when she was still a student, first at IAIA, where she was working abstractly, then at SFAI, where she often worked from live models. But she began combining the representational figures with motifs gleaned from her Hopi background and the landscapes of her youth.
“As time went on, I would be homesick, and I would think about the desert, Arizona, and the Southwest. I began thinking about Hopi, then I started including Hopi symbols and the vegetation of the desert in my work.”
You can see the thematic evolution in terms of subject matter from her early work to her most recent prints in the exhibit, which were pulled as recently as December. But there’s a continuum. The landscape orientation is an ever-present aspect, as is a collage-like use of representational imagery. The show includes rare pieces from the start of her career, like an untitled acrylic photo transfer from the late 1960s that shows the unmistakable likeness of Beatles drummer Ringo Star amidst a confluence of abstract shapes and lines in liquid movement. But a clear division between the swarming shapes and an open upper portion, where more figures take on less vibrant and more corporeal form than those in the lower portion of the composition, suggests the separation of earth and sky.
Compare it to her more recent monotype, Four Rivers #8 (2008), and you see a similar color sense at play, with deep red and yellow horizontal bands giving way, from bottom to top, to a dusky band of purple reminiscent of the nighttime sky. Swirls, wavy horizontal lines, and cross forms, which may represent stars, appear throughout the composition, giving it an overall sense of fluid motion. And the suggestion of landscape still remains.
“It’s always been about landscape to me,” she says.
But there’s an aspect to Lomahaftewa’s work that’s more cryptic than landscape elements, at least to those unfamiliar with the symbols and motifs of Hopi and Choctaw cultures.
“There’s a lot of coded knowledge that is not supposed to be available to people outside of Hopi traditions,” Evans says. “There are things that she’s not able to talk about that are present in the work and that speak to members of her community. That was one of the points of sensitivity about putting together this exhibition and the information on the panels. They have to be cleared to make sure that I’m not sharing knowledge that shouldn’t be public. People who know what those aspects mean will understand, on a different level, what Linda’s work is about. Then there are aspects that are meant to be accessible to a general audience.”
In putting The Moving Land together, Evans was given a rare opportunity to present a career retrospective that’s more complete than most. For one thing, she had access to work that Lomahaftewa created as a student and that is now a part of IAIA’s permanent collection.
“IAIA had the foresight to collect work from students and maintain it all these decades,” Evans says. “We continue to collect work from our students to this day.”
And many of those students were Lomahaftewa’s own. At the start of her tenure, she was teaching painting and drawing. In her last years, she was teaching 2D fundamentals and color theory. And she’s seen many of the leading Native artists on the contemporary scene pass through its halls, including Debra Yepa-Pappan, Rose B. Simpson, and Cannupa Hanska Luger.
“Whenever I read any of the articles about up-and-coming artists, I always look to see where they went to school,” Lomahaftewa says. “Most of the time, I can recognize who they are if they were students at IAIA. It just makes you feel good.”
“I think Linda really wanted to push many of her students to just explore materials because a lot of the IAIA students come from the reservations, and we have very little experience with that,” says interdisciplinary artist Mikayla Patton (Oglala Lakota); Lomahaftewa taught her 2D fundamentals and, later on, served as her advisor. “She understood, or at least appreciated, the work I was processing as a student. She also influenced my journey as a painter, respected my paint-making later on, and I can only imagine how she may feel about my work now. I’m happy to say she follows me on social media and likes my stuff, so I know she’s still supporting me.”
Lomahaftewa’s presence at IAIA enriched the lives not only of a generation of young emerging artists but established ones as well. Charlene Teters, academic dean at IAIA and a prominent artist in her own right, first met Lomahaftewa as a student in 1984. “She was already famous as an artist,” Teters says. “She was humble and giving as an instructor, and as an artist, she continued to push her own vision of her Hopi/Choctaw worldview.”
Evans was familiar with Lomahaftewa’s work from her time as a Ph.D. student in art history at the University of New Mexico.
“I followed her work all these years, and when there was a chance to create a retrospective, I was so honored to be asked. Native artists often experience some friction around their work being exhibited. There’s a lack of agency, oftentimes. But Linda and her family selected me because they knew that I would work very collaboratively with Linda, respect her wishes, and count her and her family’s opinions as important.”
The retrospective also gave Lomahaftewa a chance to create some new work after a series of events prevented her from being in the studio.
“After I retired, I thought I would have all this time to do my work, but it doesn’t work out that way,” she says. “I was trying to take care of my mother, who was still in Phoenix, and running back and forth. Then she passed away in 2019. So I was grieving for my mom, and then the pandemic hit. You can’t control anything. These things just happen in life.”
But, last summer, she was awarded with a two-month residency through IAIA, and the school, in collaboration with Vital Spaces, provided her with a temporary studio on Otero Street, which she continued to rent after the residency ended. “It was a breakthrough for me. It got me started in gearing up to do some new work for this exhibition. I did these small compositions. I call it my Pandemic Series because it was all done during that pandemic time.”
IAIA’s support for one of its own is matched only by Lomahaftewa’s support of the institution, whether it’s the impact she’s had on her students first-hand or her continued interest in their work after they’ve left.
“As an IAIA esteemed alumna and IAIA professor for more than 41 years, she has served as a role model for us all with her distinguished record of contributions, service, and advocacy for our students and contemporary Native arts,” says IAIA President Robert Martin. “During my tenure, I can’t recall attending an IAIA college or museum event in which Linda was not present with her smiles and positive attitude in support of our students and our community.”
“It really is rewarding to be a teacher and see how they grow,” Lomahaftewa says of her students. “Even if I just had them for one class, I feel like a mother hen. I’m just really proud of all of them.” ◀