The puki is a humble ceramic bowl made by Pueblo people as a base for making other pots. Sometimes these functional bowls are a little misshapen and not polished or refined, intricately painted, or incised. Albuquerque artist Ruben Olguin makes them following age-old techniques. He gathers the micaceous clay by hand, uses a coil method to construct them, and paints the insides using traditional white pigments and a yucca brush. The bowls are then pit-fired, leaving natural burn marks on the surface. Then Olguin does something atypical of traditional potters: Rather than painting the bowls, he projects a video of the motifs and designs onto the concave surfaces. The projections, indistinguishable at first from actual surface-painted designs, grow in complexity as you watch and then gradually fade away as if evaporating like water.
Olguin produced a series of such bowls for a project called Traces, on view in Currents, after conducting considerable research into the historic pottery of the Southwest. He named each bowl for the anthropologists, such as Kenneth Chapman and John Wesley Powell, who published texts and documents pertaining them. For Olguin, the research led to a discomfiting discovery. “It’s really weird seeing people that you’re related to in anthropological texts being talked about in anthropological terminology,” he told Pasatiempo. “To us it’s like, ‘Oh. That’s my great-grandmother. Why are they talking about her in this way like she’s some kind of object?’ So I started thinking about the objectification of Pueblo pottery and the objectification of the Pueblo potters themselves throughout all of this research.”
Traces is a multilayered project that touches on issues of cultural appropriation and ownership as well as the changing forms and patterns of Pueblo pottery designs across time. Olguin, an artist of mixed Pueblo and Spanish descent whose work is centered on electronic media, sound, and ceramics, sought permission to reproduce imagery from pots in institutional collections, baffled by the irony of the copyright laws pertaining to them. “There are these really complicated copyrights around this imagery, which was basically copied from pottery that they dug up from the ground,” he said. “So who really owns the rights to this imagery? That got me thinking about ownership and who has the rights to use and reuse imagery. I pulled out all these historical texts by anthropologists who were the ones that really founded historical research there in Santa Fe and looked at this whole mass collecting of artifacts that they were doing. I lifted all of those images out of the books, and taking them out of that page, I used pretty high-end software technology to remap the imagery onto the bowl forms. That way, they look more appropriately like what they’re supposed to look like rather than being warped in that flat page style.”
Olguin, who finished his MFA at the University of New Mexico last year, relied on a custom-made software package designed for use with the Institute of American Indian Art’s Digital Dome to create the projections. “It’s really meticulous, stitching all these images together and getting them to fit right on the bowl,” he said.
In addition to showing Traces at Currents, Olguin has several pots from the series on exhibit in The Ecozoic Era: Plant/Seed/Soil in the State Capitol’s Rotunda Gallery, on view through Aug. 5.
Ruben Olguin’s pottery project Traces can be viewed at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe from Friday, June 10, to June 26.