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Mimbres Rabbit – Man Bowl
This burial bowl from Mimbres (1000-1150 AD) once served a ceremonial function to guide a member of an ancient culture into the mystery of death. The bowl is part of a permanent collection on display at the Museum of Indian Art and Culture, Anthropology Laboratory, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is originally from the village of Cameron Creek in the Mimbres Valley of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, home to the larger Mogollon culture of which the Mimbres people were a part. Before European contact, the prehistoric Native American culture, also known as the ancestral people, was believed to have descended from three main cultures: Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi; and were known for their distinctive pottery and house building styles.
The image on the inside of the mug is described as “rabbit-man with cargo basket”, a hard-edged, stylized black painting of a curvy, straight-line, solid black human-animal figure on a broad white background. At the inner edge, two sets of finely painted thin bands circumscribe the almost perfect circular shape while a more graphic set of triangular geometric patterns radiates upwards from the back of the figure towards the lower step of bands. No shading of value is apparent, as the figure is dominated by solid black with the exception of four white bands dissecting its body, head and ears, with its single eye looking directly at the viewer from a profile face. The black band across his face looks like a mask, which could indicate something hidden.
Little black fingers and toes protrude from the stump’s simple arms and legs. The arms or front legs hang in an unnatural way, or the front legs could be walking in the air. Their hind legs have a more graceful, plant-like stance that doesn’t look like they can hold their figure. A small curled tail follows the flat and stylized design of the rabbit man along with the small protruding lips, nose and two rabbit ears that also look like feathers. The black triangular tips of the ears/feathers are related to the shape of the cargo. His body is bent perhaps because of the load, represented by the radiating geometric shape that seems to hold the figure, or possibly the rabbit-man is being pulled up by the load shape that seems to be connected to the rim bands. The bands could also symbolize heaven or the afterlife.
At first glance, the hole in the center of the cup was the obvious sign that it had a use other than holding something. As early as AD 750, these Mimbres pictorial bowls were used solely for ceremonial and ritual burial functions where the dead were buried beneath their floors in individual graves. This illustration shows how the dead were buried in an upright fetal position inside a closed pit with the bowl over their heads. Before the bowl was placed in the well, it was ritually “killed” by making a hole in the center with a sharp object before placing it upside down on the head. The purpose of this “killing hole” was to free the spirits of the deceased from the body. Then the well was filled or covered with a stone slab.
Many of these images on these funerary bowls suggest familiarity and relationships with the cultures of northern and central Mexico. The images used represented the totem animal of the clan or a celestial body, as the rabbit is a common symbol of the moon found among many indigenous peoples of the Southwest and Central America. Rabbits were also a food source for the wickers, but the rabbit man’s bowl looks like it could be more related to the moon than a hunting scene. There is probably a narrative to this illustration that connects personally with the deceased, and I would assume that certain clan icons are depicted here as well. Perhaps the number of rays in “charge form” represents a certain phase of the moon when the deceased left his body.
The large amount of negative white space around the rabbit man makes him appear to be floating, which could indicate outer space, or perhaps the deceased’s transition to another world. It is speculated that the intention behind these images within these funerary bowls was to illuminate the deceased so perhaps the rabbit could be the clan totem that descends to enter the deceased to lift their burdens from this life during an auspicious phase of the moon. before his death journey. The illustration of the rabbit man does not appear dark, fearful, or very emotional, which suggests that death was not something the Wickers feared, but rather a very ceremonial event.
The expression on his face is trance-like and the body posture is both graceful and awkward, although there is balance between the top anchor of the “cargo form” and the feet below, both touching the edge bands. The “cargo form” occupies a prominent place in the composition that gives it importance. From his back where his tail is, this larger white space looks quite empty which could portray the life he is leaving, and the white area where his head and front legs are may be where he is going. The outward look of his single eye gives the impression that he is between the two worlds, or that he is in the unknown mystery of everything and has no choice but to go along with it.
The Rabbit Man Bowl is painted in Classic Mimbres Black-on-White (Style III). By 1000 AD, Mimbres artists perfected a black-on-white technique on their ceramics similar to the black-on-white of the Anasazi to the north. A snow-white slip was used beneath well-rendered geometric and figurative designs created with black mineral paint. The reason for using only black paint, when other colored pigments were available, is not clear. Perhaps the realm of death was seen only as a journey in black and white, or perhaps when preparing the cup for the deceased they thought that other colors would distract attention from the meanings of the narrative images. Many of the bowls were believed to have been used ritually before burials. Due to the importance and exclusivity of these bowls among the Mimbres, they were never traded outside the Mimbres Valley, unlike other ceramics, such as their polychrome White Mountain Red Ware.
The rabbit man bowl looks like it’s very lightweight and is about 12″ in diameter and about 8″ deep. Most of the potters in the pueblo families were women, who ritually prayed and thanked the “source” for their materials and inspirations at all stages of pottery making: from the collection of the clay to its processing, and then the making of the ” paste”. forming a clay tortilla and coils to make the body of the container, to painting, cooking and decoration. Clays are present throughout the Mimbres Valley, including occasional deposits of kaolin, and the brushes used were made from yucca leaves. “The people of the town believe that clay has life. A sacred relationship between the potter and the clay begins when the clay is removed from the earth. Before removing the clay, the potter prays and asks the old lady Earth Clay to consider the needs of her family, “Just as you will eat us, feed us, and clothe us, so please don’t hide.” -Tessie Naranjo, Santa Clara Pueblo. Pueblo Community Exhibit (“Here, Now, and Always,” Art Museum and Culture of India, Anthropology Laboratory, Santa Fe,
The sacredness of the materials used, as well as the pictorial content, evolved with the ancient people long before the word “art” arose, which inspires to question whether their works can be called art or not. In modern times, these funerary bowl paintings are often considered art, but I wonder if this is disrespecting the spiritual boundaries of these ancient peoples as similar artifacts from other cultures seem to fall into the same gray area. In the exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, I found this captivating quote that describes how these creations of the Puebloans were not separate from their soul, body, and everyday life, but had an inherent existence to them.
“Art is not found in our language. But what do we call a work created by the hands of my family? What will we call that piece that embodies the life of its creator? What if it has life and a soul, while its creator sings and pray for her?At my house we call it pottery painted with drawings to tell us a story.At my mother’s house we call it a wedding basket to store blue corn flour for the groom’s family. at grandma’s place, we call it a kachina doll, a carved image of a life force that holds the Hopi world in place. We make pieces of life to see and touch and feel. Call it art? I hope not. lose your soul. Your life. Your people.” -Michael Lacapa, Apache/Hopi/Iewa
As in most cultures, with the evolution of the independent artist grew the weakening of these traditions and the dissolution of this symbiotic relationship between a people, their craft and their spirit. The end of the Mimbres pottery occurred around 1130-1150 AD and was equated with the “disappearance” of the people who made it, although it was later discovered that some remnants of the population remained in the Mimbres Valley.
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