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Contemporary Kachinas

UW Art Museum

Volume 15 | Number 1 | September 2013

By By Nicole M. Crawford
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A badger dressed as a cowboy, an owl smoking a cigar and the three little pigs with the big bad wolf all wearing moccasins and turquoise jewelry—not the typical iconography associated with Native American kachinas.

As part of the James R. Nolan Collection of almost 250 important Native American works of art, these kachinas often get a double take.

At first glance they might seem disconnected from traditional Native American imagery, however, these kachinas are based on the Navajo creation tales. As an essential part of Native American culture, animals play a dominant role in these legends. The artists use the kachinas to recreate the lessons taught through these myths and use animals, in humanistic forms and upright positions to illustrate the strong connection between humans and animals.

The Cowboy Badger kachina, in particular, has become popular with UW students during class visits to the Art Museum. Students in the Intro to Museology class used Cowboy Badger as part of their final research project and presentations. Visual Anthropology students used the kachina to argue the differences between aesthetic and cultural value of ethnographic objects. Most recently an art history class discussed what defines an object as art using Cowboy Badger and other contemporary kachinas as examples.

Last summer, the museum’s intern, Molly Markow (senior, fine art and professional writing) researched the contemporary kachina collection in greater depth. She contacted some artists directly to learn their motivation and explored the relationship between the specific animals depicted in the kachinas and the traditional Navajo creation stories. Her research will become part of the Guide by Cell tour, expanded wall labels used by the museum education department for curriculum guides when a selection of these contemporary kachinas from the UW Art Museum’s permanent collection will be on view at the museum August 17 through December 21.

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