Q&A; WITH PAUL APODACA : ‘The Museum Is a Place of Cultural Ceremony’


“Colors of the Dawn/Invisible People: The Arts of the Amazon,” currently at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, is the first exhibition to be mounted by Paul Apodaca, the museum’s curator of Native American art, since its reopening in October. Apodaca, 42, welcomed the show’s opening as an opportunity to talk about the exhibition and the museum’s mission, as well as his views on art and its role in society.

Question: All of the objects included in “Colors of the Dawn” are either ceremonial or, in the case of earrings, ornamental. Is this an exhibition of art or artifacts?

Answer: I want people to see these not as ethnic objects, not as anthropological oddities, not as Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not kinds of things, but as works of art expressive of people’s lives, thoughts and feelings.

All people use art in a ceremonial way, and most art has a social as well as a personal context. Perhaps the ceremony is opening night at the Met to see the latest Van Gogh acquisition. Perhaps the artwork is a reaction to war. War is certainly a cultural ceremony.


Picasso’s “Guernica,” for instance, expressed both his own views about war and also what he thought was the collective reaction of people within Spain.

Q: “Guernica” has a definite social context. What about, say, Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”?

A: I am a Navajo. I can tell you that if I were to bring one of Jackson Pollock’s most abstract pieces, or any Picasso or Duchamp, to a reservation, we would look at it and say, “Oh, that’s American,” or “That’s Western.”

It might look individualistic and mysterious to someone within (this) culture, but to someone outside of the culture, it may simply look typical. That’s the illusion of culture.


By the way, art historians don’t talk about it, but Pollock did a series of canvases that were reproductions of Navajo sand-painting designs. In all cases, Pollock began with an individual ritual involving canvas and paint, which he then offered to, and (it) was accepted by the group, which then placed the work into its ceremonial houses--the museums.

Q: Ceremonial house, as in place of worship?

A: The museum is a place of cultural ceremony, absolutely, the same way that a football game is a ritualistic sport. Ritualistic foods are consumed (at a football game) and there are ritualistic chants.

Being within the society or culture sometimes prevents us from seeing those ritualistic aspects. We think that the whole thing is personal, a series of individual choices.


But just try to explain to someone outside of this culture what a hot dog is all about. It’s more than a food, isn’t it? Just like baseball is more than a game. To eat a hot dog at Wrigley Field? That we view ourselves as normal, and “the other” as odd and interesting, is a holdover of 19th-Century colonialism.

As we come into a true multicultural view, we’ll see that we’re just as interesting and colorful as “the other.” Of course, one of the most interesting and beautiful rituals in which we engage is the opening of a new exhibition at a museum.

Q: How much contextual information are you providing for the Amazonian objects in “Colors of the Dawn”?

A: We are a cultural art museum. If we were an anthropology museum, or an ethnology or ethnography museum, our mission would be precisely to explain the culture of these people.


But our emphasis is art, not anthropology. I’m providing a poetic narrative to transmit some of that information, but I don’t want that information to interfere with your ability to look at the art as something beautiful.

When a museum displays a Picasso, there’s no demand to explain the history of Spain, to show a typical Spanish village or to show how a Spanish artist’s studio might look. If we show French art, there’s no need to play French music in the gallery. Granted, we already know a good deal about French and Spanish culture, but the reason we don’t provide the background is more a matter of cultural chauvinism.

When we see a French Impressionist painting, the French part is minor compared to the Impressionist part. We look at the painting primarily as a depiction of form and color and light. We don’t think of it as an extension of Gaelic evolutionary culture somehow connected to Charlemagne or Louis XVI. We remove it from the culture and think of it in almost entirely intellectual terms. Why are we unable to do that with artwork of people from Polynesia or Africa or the Americas?

Q: What do you believe is the difference between art and craft?


A: Those iron walls of fine art versus folk art versus craft are shattering. There is no difference. Those were class separations that enabled the divinely inspired artist to continue to be subsidized by the Pope, intellectual constructs designed to separate what could be figured out by the intellect of man versus what could be graced to man by God.

The European definition of art in any case changes all the time. At one time, art is what the church approves, at another--say, as defined by Sotheby’s--whatever buys or sells in the marketplace.

Artists of European extraction have continually challenged the definition of art, and how they have done so is precisely the course that Western art historians follow so diligently.

That definition has been challenged repeatedly from the inside, but now we have a chance to challenge that definition from the outside, with the art of non-European cultures.


Q: How would you compare, for example, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with an Amazonian headdress?

A: They’re both ceremonial, they both took a special effort and special devotion--in the very pure sense of men standing in awe of beauty, they’re equal. Where there’s no comparison is in the work involved.

The Sistine Chapel represents years of work, it’s a monumental human achievement in the amount of time and effort that went into it, whereas a headdress can be completed in a few days.

But that’s the only way that it’s essentially different. The headdress, though only a few days’ worth of work, also represents the expression of a lifetime’s worth of devotion to the ideas and concepts of its culture.


Q: Much like the single brush stroke of a Chinese watercolor?

A: On the very most poetic and essential level, a perfect example.

Q: Let’s say an Amazonian is looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, while a European is in a room looking at an Amazonian feather headdress. What happens?

A: Both are confused. Eventually, they both start to recognize colors and harmony and the work that has gone into them, and eventually they both begin to appreciate them as works of art.


Q: I would suspect that at first the Amazonian might be overwhelmed, and the European underwhelmed--the Amazonian assaulted by too much sensory data, the European too little.

A: That might be a cultural chauvinism of “primitive” versus “modern.” But, yes, it may indeed be the case that the Amazonian is overwhelmed by information--to the point where he might not even see it.

I come from another culture, and I know what it’s like to stand in front of something and not be able to see it. I’m reminded of the film “Alien.” There are scenes in that film where the monster is right there in front of you, yet you can’t see it until all of a sudden a coil moves and everyone in the room screams. It was in front of you the whole time but you couldn’t see it because reference points needed for identification were not in motion.

Those kind of references can also be cultural. I can show you a Navajo rug and you won’t see what I see in it. You might see lines and shapes--I might see a rainstorm.


Q: Do you believe the headdress and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are works that are equal in complexity?

A: For us to believe in the equality of human beings, we must really believe in the equality of human beings, and that includes the complexity of their expressions.

To think that some people need complex math equations to satisfy their intellect while other human beings need simple ones is another terrible chauvinism. All people work to the same level of complexity.

That complexity can be communicated empathetically or explicitly. It can be expressed in a mathematical equation, in an Islamic set of tiles or in what may appear to be, to a person outside of a culture, a very simple object. But (a similar) level of complexity is always present. . . .


One of the peculiarities of European Western culture--just peculiar, not bad or good--is that it verbalizes and otherwise manifests its complexity as explicitly as it can. In fact, we exhaust ourselves with the explicit explanation.

There’s no energy left to appreciate more empathetic kinds of communication. Art, as the language of human expression, is a way for us to start to see the way other cultures see. You’ll never ever think like an Amazonian, nor will I. But we can begin to think a little bit more like them.