2020-10 Radiant feather tile

The maker, Ida Sahmie, is Dine (Navajo), as indicated on the reverse of the tile, and married Andrew Sahmie, son of Priscilla Sahmie.  Ida was taught pottery making by her mother-on-law but has developed her own style of painting that reflects her heritage and is not derived from Hopi or Hopi-Tewa  culture.  The design is intriguing, but it is not clear if it represents a particular Dine cultural tradition or is a creation of the artist.

Form:

The tile is perfectly round and flat.  It is polished on the front but left smooth but unpolished on the rear.

Design:

The perfectly round 1.625-inch diameter of the face at the center of the design  harmonizes with the 4-inch circular shape of the tile .  Radiating from the face are 16 feathers in groups of four, each group a different color but with the same format.  Each feather flairs out slightly from its base, then turns sharply inward to form the feather’s tip.  All 16 feathers have black diamond-shaped tips with a black spine pointing downward.  If we assume that “north” is directly above the face, the north feathers  are painted white, the east feathers are painted burnt siena, the south feathers black and the west feathers maroon.

Meaning:

Colors have directional meaning at Hopi (Wade and Cooke, 2012:27-28), but the directional colors on this tile do not seem to fit that typology.

A tile that is almost identical to tile 2020-10 was recently sold by King Galleries.  Ida titled the gallery tile  “Sun of Eagle” and the gallery wrote of their tile that:

“There is a sunface in the center surrounded by eagle feathers.  The feathers are painted in four different colors for the four directions.  There is a corn plant in the center of the face.  The sun symbolizes life while the eagle feathers represent balance and justice.”

Ida calls the design of the tile in this collection  “Talking God” on the reverse.  Collectors often want to know the “meaning” of a design and artists find that sales increase when they provide collectors with a design story that seems rooted in an “exotic” Native culture. Given that two diferent tiles with the same design are said to represent different meanings, I am confused and uncertain about how or if to interpret the design on tile 2020-10.

Circular shapes with protruding feathers similar to that on tile 2020-10 were frequently painted on the ancient kiva murals at Awatovi. Watson Smith calls these images “sun shields” and interprets the feathers as “rays of the sun” (1952:130). See figures 72a&c, 73, 84b and 89c in Smith for examples. Ed  Wade believes that such “power shield” designs are still drawn by men in the kivas at Hopi. These are ritual shields that provide an “osmotic portal” or “activated doorway” (Ed’s phrases) to a mystic realm. Such images are sacred and powerful and these images in the kiva (painted by men) are generally destroyed after use. (From a conversation in Ed’s home.)

Such portals to a mystic realm are the concern of an extensive article by Karl Taube (2010). He writes that “feathered-rimmed passages are common in Pueblo IV kiva art, including Pottery Mound and Awat’ovi” and cites numerous sources, including Watson Smith (2010:104). This tradition is shared with ancient Mexican cultures: “In Olmec, Teotihuacan and Puebloan imagery, supernatural passageways can be rimmed with feathers, a motif probably alluding to a circular flower” (2010:120). Siitalpuva: “land brightened with flowers” is a central Hopi ideal and goal (Hays-Gilpin 2006 and 2010a & b) to which a portal would give access.

A bowl that seems to represent a feathered supernatural passageway is part of this collection.  See bowl 2013-16.

Since Ida is Dine I do not assume that she is familiar with this ethnographic discussion of mystic Hopi  portals.  Rather, I think she probably drew on generalized images from Hopi and perhaps Dine culture and shaped tham into the impressive design on tile 2020-10..