Ancient Bowls with M.C. Escher-like Designs

The ongoing installation, Native Artists of Western North America, spans over one thousand years of artistic expression. It encompasses diverse peoples and places and provides a glimpse of the natural, cultural, and spiritual worlds of these Native artists from western North America. The works on view reveal the aesthetic sensibilities and technical mastery of the artists who made them: potters transform the earth into clays and pigments; weavers gather fiber from plants and animals; and carvers search for trees that will yield strong, even wood that can be chiseled, shaped, and smoothed.

The installation is organized into focused groupings, facilitating an exploration of materials, styles, and diverse artistic voices. Here, we explore a grouping of ceramic bowls from the Mimbres Valley of New Mexico.

The Mimbres people lived in southwestern New Mexico during the first millennium CE. We do not know what they called themselves; the culture is named for the river valley where the distinctive bowls were first unearthed. The first settlements in the valley date to around 550, and by 1100 there were at least seventeen villages situated along the Mimbres River and its tributaries. Around 1150, a sudden and substantial shift occurred in the Southwest: the neighboring Chaco and Hohokam societies toppled, and the Mimbres culture either radically transformed or collapsed as well. Relatively little is known about these ancient artists.

"The bold black-and-white designs on the inside of the vessels look entirely contemporary, as if inspired by the pages of a graphic novel, but the bowls were made nearly a thousand years ago."

Bowl with human-avian figure. Mimbres artist, New Mexico, United States, ca. 1000–1150. Earthenware and pigment. Diameter: 9 3/4 in. (24.7 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family, 2013.76.99
Bowl with human-avian figure. Mimbres artist, New Mexico, United States, ca. 1000–1150. Earthenware and pigment. Diameter: 9 3/4 in. (24.7 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family, 2013.76.99

The canonical black-on-white Mimbres bowls were made in the latter years of the culture's existence, between 1000 and 1150. The distinctive designs were achieved using mineral-based pigments. Artists coated the interior surfaces of the bowls with a fine clay slip and then used yucca-fiber brushes to embellish the backgrounds with a hematite-based paint. They then fired the bowls in an oxygen-restricted environment, resulting in the distinctive dichromatic palette.

Bowl with deer and geometric landscape. Mimbres artist, New Mexico, United States, ca. 1110–1150. Earthenware and pigment. Diameter: 10 5/8 in. (27 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family, 2013.76.168
Bowl with deer and geometric landscape. Mimbres artist, New Mexico, United States, ca. 1110–1150. Earthenware and pigment. Diameter: 10 5/8 in. (27 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of the Thomas W. Weisel Family, 2013.76.168

Mimbres artists decorated their works with a wide range of motifs: abstract, figurative, and occasionally narrative. The designs reveal a keen eye for the natural world. Representations of flora and fauna abound and geometric patterns often evoke the dramatic landscape of the Southwest: distant mountains, sweeping horizons, and mirages that shimmer above the cracked earth. Close inspection of the bowls reveals surprising details: scenes painted on concave surfaces appear flat and figures merge and flow between foreground and background, resulting in M.C. Escher-esque impossibilities in design. The Mimbres bowls on view at the de Young demonstrate the perception, imagination, and sophistication of their ancient makers.

Hillary Olcott is Assistant Curator, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Text adapted from “A New Installation at the de Young: Native Artists of Western North America” in Tribal Art, Summer 2018.