Laura Gilpin, Tonita Peña, San Ildefonso, New Mexico, 1945. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of The Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.
In 1921, the United States federal government placed regulations on the Pueblo tribes sacred dances. About the same time, a San Ildefonso Pueblo woman started painting pictures - though only men of her tribe were allowed to partake in such activities. That artist, Quah Ah, whose Native American name translates to ‘white coral beads’, but who is often referred to by her Spanish-assigned name, Tonita Peña, captured the defiant, inner strength of her community. She painted the dances.
Peña portrayed the sacred cycle of life by focusing on figures performing rituals devoid of background. She painted her love for the sacred Corn Dance, she painted men and women as equals, performing tasks they believed would create harmony with the spirits. This sense of harmony also came through in her brushstrokes. Quah Ah’s paints, made from local pigments and yucca root, crackled with the New Mexico sun. Her compositions aligned the dancers in ceremony and in movement. On stark, blank paper canvas, the richly colored imagery felt elevated from everyday life.
Drawing at an early age, Quah Ah was introduced to watercolors by the teachers at the San Ildefonso Day School, and adapted and ink-and-watercolor technique, despite accusations of being influenced by white patronage. (By mandate, the school could not teach traditional Native American arts). Quah Ah simply made art with the materials provided.
At age 12, after the passing of her mother, Quah Ah was sent to live with relatives in Cochiti Pueblo where she would ultimately marry and learn new ways. She started over in many aspects, except in her art, but painting defied their tradition. Only through her husband’s negotiations with the tribal council was she granted the ongoing right to paint. In order to dedicate time to her craft, Peña paid others to preform her traditional female duties, like a modern working mother.
Quah Ah’s influence began to flourish in 1921, when she met Edgar Lee Hewett, the then director of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. Impressed by her work, he bought paintings, supplied materials and introduced the artist to other patrons. The arrival of railroads brought both a challenge to American Indian culture and a cavalcade of tourists, who all wanted to buy a piece of Pueblo heritage. Pena would become a bridge between her Pueblo and the outside world. Her timeless watercolor and ink pictures touched new art lovers who came to New Mexico by railroad, and her artwork changed opinions and helped to defend Pueblo culture.
Studying one of Quah Ah’s paintings brings you there - to the Pueblo. It fosters a spiritual connection, a bridge. In the 1920’s her paintings, like white coral beads for which she is named, were traded and shown all over the East Coast. Her work helped change perceptions of Native Americans. The federal government’s dance ban was lifted in 1934.