Object: Tesuque Figurine

Tesuque Pueblo: Seated Figurine
New Mexico
20th century
Materials: Pottery, paint

This is an effigy from one of the smaller pueblos of the North American Southwest, the Tesuque pueblo. The Tesuque pueblo dates to at least 1200 CE and is located approximately ten miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. This particular pueblo is most noted for its dynamic participation in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish colonials, and for the colorful ceramic tradition as seen in the seated figurine shown here. Tesuque figures such as this one are most commonly referred to as rain gods, and are readily identified by the tell-tale vessels depicted in their laps.

Rain gods were first made in the early 1880s to fill a need in the trade market for small portable pottery. Due to newly built railroads, there was an increase in tourists who flocked to the pueblos and desired affordable souvenirs to take home with them. Typically, rain gods they were formed in the seated position, hollow bodied, with slits to represent open eyes and mouths, and given no gender-specific characteristics. Some gods are fired without decoration, but most are slipped and painted like the one in this example.

In the early years of crafting gods, the Tesuque created several types including gods of pain and gods of hunger, which are seen holding their heads, stomachs or other body parts. However, ultimately the gods of rain proved to be the tourist favorite and therefore other gods largely fell out of circulation. By the turn of the century as the rain gods’ popularity continued to grow, they were decorated for the purpose of individual artistic expression. Less emphasis was placed on meeting the tourists’ tastes, and Tesuque members produced rain gods with more careful attention to fine craftsmanship and an adherence to symbols found on other more traditional ceramic forms.

By the 1930s, artists took pride in creating elaborate and unique patterns to set their gods apart from others, maintaining conventional rain symbolism all the while. Like other forms of aboriginal symbols, symbols commonly seen on rain gods have multiple meanings, include semi-circles to represent clouds, zigzagged lines to represent lightening, and serial triangles to represent water serpents. In the last fifty years, the mass market demand for private collectors seeking rain gods has sharply decreased. This gives artists greater freedom to continue the shift towards creating figurines for personal and tribal fulfillment rather than needing to meet the preferences of the public audience.

[Anna Rice]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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