Joshua Madalena believes that Jemez black-on-white pottery is the original art form of the Jemez Pueblo people. This unique form of ceramic pottery is tempered with volcanic tuff or rock, slipped with white clay, painted with carbon (vegetable) paint, and fired in an oxygen-free atmosphere. The pottery was used, based on archaeological findings, from about 1300 to 1700 AD throughout the Jemez (pronounced hey-mess) Mountain range and surrounding areas, before being extinguished by Spanish occupation of modern day New Mexico.
Madalena, who is currently serving his third one-year term as governor of his pueblo and is also a religious leader in the community, made the hard choice of reviving this ancestral art form in the early 1990’s. After much trial and error, he successfully rediscovered the process that had been lost for nearly three centuries. In 2012 he was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Allan Houser Legacy Award at the Santa Fe Indian Market for his contributions to the Native art world.
What gives Jemez black-on-white pottery its special meaning and significance to your people?
It is the pottery of the ancestors. It was the dominant art form for 400 years, and survived without change during that time. Contemporary art changes from one generation to the next, but Jemez black-on-white pottery didn’t change for 400 years. These vessels were created from miniatures all the way to giant form. You had your utilitarian wares, but the black-on-white pottery was designed with a sacred animal or our sacred mountains, valleys and canyons – our sacred places of worship. So the black-on-white pottery actually tells a story. It was the individual potter’s way of interpreting their times and the activities going on in their life.
What happened back in history that forced this art form to become wiped out?
Jemez black-on-white pottery was one of the casualties of the oppression by Spain during their conquest of the Southwest (after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680). Spain oppressed the traditional way of life of Native Americans and especially my people here in the Jemez region. They also tried to oppress language but we took it underground. We spoke our language in secret. But what was oppressed once is now living again.
What made you decide to revive this art form and bring it back from extinction?
Jemez black-on-white pottery had been gone for 300 years. It needed to be reborn because I needed to find the identity of our people. I needed to find where I stood in this world and where my place was on Earth during these times. This culture, these stories, needed to be brought back. I asked the elders but there was no memory about this art. I started visiting museums and collections in Santa Fe and throughout the Southwest in the early 1990’s. It was a very complex process. It took over 10 years. We had to find the right clay and plants, how long to boil them and so on. The hardest part was trying to fire the pots. The pit firing was the key.
When did you know that you had successfully resuscitated this traditional art form?
It was just by accident. I was firing pots and the large ones cracked and it was sad. I had been working (on the pots) for about a month. I started throwing the hot dirt on top of all the pots. The next morning I went out to uncover the smaller ones and I couldn’t believe it. They held together and it was the first time that I had seen a contemporary black-on-white that came out almost perfect. I feel like I solved a whole puzzle that had been missing for 300 years. Things happen, and if something is meant to be, if it’s meant to happen then in some way or some form you’re given a gift by the spirits.