Exhibition on Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo Offers Perspectives On Western Expansion and Indigenous Resiliency

  • August 09, 2021 17:55

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Jules Tavernier (American, born France, 1844–1889). "Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California", 1878. Oil on canvas, 48 × 72 1/4 in. (121.9 × 183.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, 2016 (2016.135)

Rediscovered masterwork reveals a remarkable story about California history and Indigenous communities.

Exhibition is on view December 18, 2021–April 17, 2022, at the de Young museum, San Francisco. 

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will be the exclusive West Coast presentation of Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo. The exhibition, co-organized with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will step into the 1870–1880s, a period when white settlers continued to claim and mine lands in California and the West that had been inhabited by Indigenous populations for thousands of years. During this time, landscape painter Jules Tavernier journeyed across the United States, portraying the ceremonies and gatherings he witnessed in the Indigenous homelands and the awe-inspiring beauty of the contested landscapes. Through his compositions and the accounts of Native art historians and cultural practitioners, the exhibition will broaden perspectives on the West and highlight the resilience of Indigenous populations.

Carrying basket, ca. 1890-1910. Yokayo Pomo, Native American. Mendocino, California, United States. Sedge root, redbud shoots, willow shoots, oak or wild grape vine. 20 x 18 in. (50.8 x 45.7 cm). Gift of Charles and Valerie Diker, 2016 (2016.738.1). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo is a timely exhibition that brings alternative perspectives to narratives that have dominated the interpretation of American history and art from this period,” states Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “With insights added from the Elem Pomo community, Tavernier’s Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California reveals a more complex story of a moment in time, bringing to light the impact that Western expansion had on the Elem Pomo community in Northern California and highlighting the resilience and significant heritage of this community."

Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo has special resonance for Robert Geary, Elem Pomo tribal citizen and ceremonial roundhouse leader, who states: ‘Through this exhibition I hope to educate the world about the beauty of my people and my village. The Elem Xe-xwan (ceremonial roundhouse) still exists today with the ceremonies and the Elemfo (Elem people) whom Tavernier painted in 1878.’”

Alongside Tavernier’s recently rediscovered masterpiece Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California (1878), more than 70 works will be presented, including paintings, prints, watercolors, and photographs by Tavernier, as well as representations of Pomo peoples by his contemporaries. An extraordinary display of over 40 pieces of Pomo basketry and regalia, along with a documentary film highlighting the Native context of Tavernier’s canvas, will celebrate the enduring culture and artistry of Pomo peoples.

The exhibition is copresented with Elem Pomo cultural leader and regalia maker Robert Geary; Dry Creek Pomo scholar Sherrie Smith-Ferri, PhD; and Eastern Pomo artist and curator Meyo Marrufo; with additional contributions from Arthur Amiotte, Oglala Lakota artist and historian; and Healoha Johnston, curator of Asian Pacific American women’s cultural history at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Jules Tavernier (American, born France, 1844–1889), Artist’s Reverie, Dreams at Twilight, 1876, Oil on canvas, 24 in x 50 in. Collection of Dr. Oscar and Trudy Lemer, photograph courtesy of the Capitol Art Program

Born and trained in France, Jules Tavernier arrived in New York in 1871 and shortly thereafter was commissioned to travel across the US to make a pictorial record of the West. Tavernier and a companion captured scenes from the Indigenous lands currently referred to as Nebraska, Wyoming, California, and the Hawaiian Islands. Here they encountered Native Americans and Native Hawaiians at key moments in their struggles to maintain Indigenous sovereignty over the land and resist settler encroachment. Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo will explore a series of encounters between the landscape painter Jules Tavernier and Indigenous communities across the US, most notably the Elem Pomo village at Clear Lake, California.

Jules Tavernier, (American, born France, 1844–1889), Sunrise over Diamond Head, 1888. Oil on canvas, 11 3/4 x 17 3/4 in. (29.9 x 45.1 cm). Collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art. Gift of Frances Damon Holt in memory of John Dominis Holt, 2001 (9500.1)

Having settled in San Francisco in the 1870s, Tavernier became one of the city’s leading painters. Over a period of two years, the artist visited the Elem Pomo Indian village, about 100 miles from the city, on several occasions in preparation to create his masterwork Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California (1878)—the centerpiece of this exhibition.

Capturing a historical moment, Tavernier’s painting chronicles an exceptional cultural interaction between California Indians in their homelands and outsiders—settlers and business investors—on November 22, 1875. In the dramatic scene, Tavernier depicts a ceremonial dance of the Elem Pomo known as mfom Xe, or “people dance.” Taking place in an underground roundhouse, Xe-xwan, the dance was performed to protect the people and the land from the destruction and diseases brought by the new settlers. Among the more than 100 Pomo community members of all ages taking part in the ceremony are three visitors: Mexican-born Tiburcio Parrott y Ochoa, a San Francisco banker and patron of Tavernier who commissioned the painting; his Parisian business partner, Baron Edmond de Rothschild; and French military officer Comte Gabriel Louis de Turenne d’Aynac, who was traveling with Rothschild. Parrott was the new owner and operator of the Sulphur Bank Quicksilver Mining Company on Elem ancestral lands. In the ensuing years, the mine would cause widespread mercury contamination of the lake, greatly affecting the Elem Pomo community.

“Since the Fine Arts Museums are located in California—the ancestral homelands of the Pomo peoples and home to more Native Americans than any other state in the country—we are honored to have the opportunity to present new insights into their history and highlight their enduring artistry and rich contributions to the cultural heritage of Northern California. The Pomo basketry and regalia on view will celebrate the enduring craftsmanship and skill of several generations of Pomo artists,” states Christina Hellmich, curator in charge of arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The roundhouse in Tavernier’s painting—like the one on the same site still in use by the community today—embodies the shape of a basket. The exhibition also explores the story of Pomo basketry. Historically, baskets were life-sustaining vessels used in all aspects of Pomo daily life. To create this variety of vessels, Pomo weavers mastered myriad ways of creating a basket and Pomo baskets are world-renowned for their beauty, mastery of technique, and artistry. In this exhibition, viewers can see how this weaving tradition changed in response to the historic circumstances of Pomo peoples’ lives.  The exhibition includes historic baskets made by Susanna Graves; Cora Juarez/Worris; Mary Knight Benson and William Benson; and “Elthie” (Ethel Bogus). Baskets reflect the resilience of Pomo communities through the ability and creativity of weavers to adapt to economic and social change, enabling this core aspect of Pomo culture to survive the devastating effects of colonialism. Weaver Clint McKay (Dry Creek Pomo/Wappo/Wintun), whose works are included in the exhibition, states that “to us it [basketry] is the very essence of who we are as Pomo.” Contemporary pieces by McKay, Corine Pearce (Redwood Valley Little River Band of Pomo) and Susan Billy (Hopland Pomo) show the dynamism of Pomo basketry that continues to evolve with each new generation of artists.

A short documentary film created for the exhibition, narrated by Pomo copresenters Robert Geary, Sherrie Smith-Ferri, and Meyo Marrufo, will introduce the audience to Clear Lake and the roundhouse; highlight the importance of the landscape and natural materials in Pomo basketry; and present the environmental and cultural impact of mining and land loss as well as the continuum of Elem Pomo ceremony at the site.

Tavernier became known as a landscape painter, capturing scenes at the locations he traveled to across the US. The exhibition will present several works by Tavernier from Camp Robinson, Nebraska, and Fort Laramie, Wyoming—US military installations near the Red Cloud Agency of Chief Red Cloud—alongside narration by Native art historians, curators, and cultural practitioners, designating these places as embodied lands and ancestral homelands rather than colonialist spaces for exploitation and occupation. The exhibition also includes several distinctive Northern California landscapes by Tavernier, including Around the Campfire (Encampment in the Redwoods) (1875); A Disputed Passage (in the Days of ’46) (1876); Sentinel Rock (1886); and his dramatic and mysterious Monterey landscape Artist’s Reverie, Dreams at Twilight (1876). Distinctive from paintings by an earlier generation of artists portraying Native Americans in vast and seemingly empty landscapes ready for white settlement, Tavernier’s works feature Indigenous survivance and also visualize the aftermath of genocide, land theft, forced relocation, and cultural destruction.

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