Arts

Exhibit at de Young Depicts Life of Elem Pomo Native Community

By Noma Faingold

While the new exhibition at the de Young Museum, titled Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo (Dec. 18-April 17, 2022), may feature more than 70 works by the French-born landscape artist, the show is really not about him.

Robert Geary, Elem Pomo cultural leader and exhibition co-presenter, standing next to the Jules Tavernier masterpiece, “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California.” Photo by Noma Faingold.

Instead, the exhibit captures a precarious time in the 1870s for the Elem Pomo Native community in Clear Lake, California, depicted in Tavernier’s paintings. Intricate baskets and ceremonial regalia from that period are also on display. However, the lingering message is about survival of the Elem Pomo community, against all odds.

A large painting, “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake,” is the centerpiece of the exhibition. The scene, captured in 1878, features a ceremonial dance of the Elem Pomo known as “mfom Xe” (people’s dance). It takes place in an underground roundhouse built about eight feet down. The structure is shaped like a giant basket. One thing unusual about the scene is that there are a few non-Natives attending, including Tiburcio Parrott y Ochoa, a San Francisco banker, who commissioned the painting. 

“It’s ironic to see this ceremony happening with people present that the Native people are trying to fight off,” said Robert Geary, Elem Pomo Tribal Citizen Ceremonial Roadhouse Leader and co-presenter of the exhibition. “It’s a double-edged sword because the ceremony is about ensuring that the lives of the Pomo community are going to be OK, but they are establishing a relationship out of fear with the ones who were believed to be putting these catastrophes onto our people.”

In the 1870s and 1880s, white settlers continued to claim and mine lands in California, having a devastating effect on the environment (the lake was contaminated with mercury) and the Native populations, who had inhabited such areas in the West for thousands of years. 

According to Geary, Tavernier’s masterpiece has some artist embellishments, such as who wore what regalia and the placement of the fire pit. 

“The structure itself rings true from what our elders said about how we made roundhouses. It generally tells the story of what was going on at that time,” he said. 

The exhibition also features 47 baskets and pieces of regalia, including ceremonial headpieces and capes made of feathers. While the various baskets were used mostly for practical purposes, such as carrying infants and harvesting, storing and cooking food, the craft evolved into a way to make money for the Pomo community when people started collecting them in the 1880s. 

“I grew up in a family that made baskets. I was always told we made the best baskets in the world,” said Dry Creek Pomo scholar and co-presenter of the exhibition, Sherrie Smith-Ferri, Ph.D. “People from the outside would comment on their beauty and their excellence.”

Smith-Ferri added, “Baskets are still being made today. It’s a way to stay connected to our culture.”

The Elem Pomo exhibit at the de Young Museum includes a collection of baskets, a source of pride and cultural significance for the Native community. Photo by Noma Faingold.

Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo is organized by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Geary, who lives in Clear Lake, is grateful to be able to share through the exhibit what his elders passed down and what is going on in the Pomo community today. He finds beauty in “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California” in particular because it represents “a continuum,” he said. “We do ceremonies like this today.” 

Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo Exhibit is at the de Young Museum through April 17, 2022. For more information, go to deyoungmuseum.org.

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