“Katsina in Hopi Life” is as close as a person can come to actually visiting the Sipaulovi village at Second Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in Northern Arizona. With the re-creation of a representative corn farm, Hopi house and village plaza–the ideal backdrop for the nearly 180 Katsina dolls on display–exhibition curators Susan Secakuku and the late Hartman Lomawaima give museum visitors an intimate glimpse into their culture and heritage.
At the heart of exhibit are the sacred Katsinam, the spiritual beings that represent all aspects of life on earth. These divine friends of the Hopi people bring not only tangible gifts to the tribesmen, but also enlightenment and a perpetual message to all mankind, calling everyone to goodness.
The family-friendly exhibit has a variety of features that appeal to both adults and children, alike. The deep familial bonding that is essential to the Hopi way of life is clearly demonstrated in the film clips and interactive displays, complete with impressive visuals and relevant audios. Sure to please youngsters are the hands-on areas, including one equipped with various musical instruments that they can try.
As an integral part of Hopi culture, Katsinam associate with the Hopi people all throughout their lives. However, it is only during certain months of the year that the spiritual beings visit the people in their village. In answer to the prayers of the Hopi people, the Katsinam aid the people, not only in attaining an abundant harvest, but also in fulfilling many other personal petitions.
Through a series of traditional ceremonies held each year in the village, the Hopi people come to learn more about the Katsinam and strengthen their relationship with the spirits. During childhood, a powerful bond is created with each child in the village when the Katsinam bestow them with gifts. The spirits make and give each Hopi girl a doll called a tihu; the boys often receive drums, rattles, and lightening sticks, which are used in the ceremonial dances.
These gifts bring the children much delight, as fundamentally, they are meant to be played with. However, the dolls also serve to provide the children with a wealth of knowledge about the Katsinam and are deeply meaningful to the children, and remain so, throughout adulthood.
Yet these special gifts also serve as a form of positive reinforcement within the Hopi culture, ever encouraging the youngsters to live virtuous lives.
The exhibit, “Katsina in Hopi Life”, took nearly eight years to put together. Indeed, it was a laborious effort, but clearly also a labor of love.
In telling this story, Secukuku was intent on authentically portraying her culture, yet at the same time there was the innate obligation of adhering to strict cultural guidelines. There are parts of the Hopi tradition that simply cannot be disclosed to people who are not Hopi.
Thus, Secukuku worked closely with a variety of tribal advisers, in her effort to bring this exhibit to the Autry.
In choosing an agricultural theme, Secukuku was able to use rudimentary components of Hopi daily life, such as planting and harvesting, to communicate and demonstrate the deep spirituality of the Hopi people.
In her selection of Katsina dolls for the exhibit, Secukuku presents a wide range of both traditional and contemporary artifacts, representing many different spiritual beings. The dolls were chosen from the more than 700 pieces in the prestigious Southwest Museum of the American Indian Collection.
Amongst those on exhibit are animals and birds, including the majestic Kwahu, or eagle. As well, there are the often-intimidating Ogres, carrying various weapons that easily instill fear. The Mudheads, known for their playfulness and humorous manner, add a distinctive visual characteristic to the group.
The majority of these Katsina dolls are from the 20th century, although a few date back to the 19th century. The earliest representations are more abstract and are made from the simplest of natural elements: cottonwood, pigment paint, bird feathers and horsehair. In contrast, contemporary Katsina dolls tend to be much more elaborate. Over time, as art collectors’ interest in the dolls grew, many Hopi carvers added intricate details and began using bright acrylic paints, giving the dolls a strikingly creative flair.
Set to run through June 2013, the exhibit gives museum visitors an insightful opportunity to immerse themselves in Hopi traditions and to come away with an abundance of knowledge, appreciation and admiration for the Hopi people and the eternal righteousness that is at the heart of their culture.
(The Autry National Center is located at 4700 Heritage Way, Los Angeles 90027. Click here for hours of operation, admission fees and other information. Special note: Admission is free to the museum on the second Tuesday of every month. Bank of America customers can take advantage of the Museums on Us program and also enjoy free admission on the first full weekend of every month.)