Sunday, October 2, 2016

Georgia O'Keeffe in London

A Facebook photo by a friend from London alerted me to a major Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit in London's Tate Gallery.  Advertisements call it "a unique opportunity to discover one of the greatest American female artists, since there are currently no works by O’Keeffe in public collections in the UK." My friend, an acclaimed contemporary painter, said the photographs of O'Keeffe made by her husband Alfred Stieglitz were more interesting to him than her paintings. I was not surprised.  When I first learned about O'Keeffe, I though her gigantic paintings of flowers were like blown-up photographs suitable for posters in kitschy home decor.  On a trip to the Southwest in the 1990s, I was primarily interested in visiting Apache and Navajo reservations. O'Keeffe's home, her ranch and her museum in New Mexico, were items to see en passant. 


I was particularly intrigued by Abiquiu, an ancient Indian pueblo settled in the 18th century by the Spaniards. The original settlement, named after its church Santa Rosa de Lima de Abiquiu, was created as a buffer zone between the Spaniards under the Mexican government and hostile Indian tribes further north. The present day Abiquiu, named Santo Tomas Apostel de Abiquiu, was built 5 kilometers away on the site of the ancient Tewa pueblo to house captive and orphaned Indians from various Nomadic tribes. They were Christianized and taught Spanish, even intermarried with Spaniards, and soon forgot their origins if they had ever known them. After a wild Indian raid, the Santa Rosa settlement was deserted and the remaining residents joined their neighbors at Santo Tomas. Since then, Abiquiu has been populated by the descendants of those those Indians and Spaniards, a uniquely New Mexican ethnic strain, called Genizaros (derived from the word janissaries, the name for elite infantry units in the medieval Ottoman army). When Georgia O'Keeffe moved there in the 1940s she was the only out-of-state resident in the small adobe village.

The historic Abiquiu took some time and effort to find and when I arrived at its gates after a bumpy ride on a winding dirt road, I felt like an intruder.  There really was an entrance gate and not widely open either. The sign above the iron bars said something like "You are entering the historic Abiquiu, please be quiet" ( maybe these were not the exact words, but I felt like the message was "turn around and go back").  I was sure the gate was being locked at night. There were no directions to Georgia O'Keeffe's house and no tourists wondering around. Abiquiu was like a ghost city. I entered the first open door I saw off the main plaza, which took me into the Galería de Don Cacahuate.  At my "anybody there" shout the owner came up from the back - a local wood carver Leopold Garcia, a bearded guy with a raspy voice, looking to be in his early 40s.  As luck would have it, he was a real font of information about Abiquiu and its most famous resident. 

"My father used to be the chauffeur to Georgia O'Keeffe. My grandfather did all the construction work for Georgia O'Keeffe. I grew up around Georgia O'Keeffe. She visited our house a lot," Garcia told me.  I could believe that. Garcia's gallery and his home were right across the street from O'Keffee's home, which turned out to be closed when I was there. 

So what was she like? "A lot of people in the village liked her," said Garcia. "A lot of people didn't, because she was an outsider and she kept to herself like I do." Hmm... does this have anything to do with the unusual welcome sign at the village gate? Garcia became a little defensive.  "How would you feel if strange people came to your house and peered inside through your windows?"  OK, OK, I understand. The historic Abiquiu village is a small community of people who have lived there for generations like a family, on privately owned land. Their isolation on a hilltop off Highway 84 was somewhat disturbed by the arrival of the East Coast celebrity. According to some biographers, O'Keeffe never learned Spanish and because of her black robes, a walking stick and wild animal skulls she collected and painted, many called her "la bruja", the witch. But the Genizaros of Abiquiu have traditionally accepted and sheltered newcomers, especially those in need, like other displaced Americans (they just don't like tourists), and so they lived in peace with the late artist.

St Tomas Aposte Church in Abiquiu, NM
Despite her fame, it is not O'Keefe that comes to mind when I remember Abiquiu.  It is instead its oldest resident, the mythical Don Cacahuate, or Mr. Peanut, of the woodcarver's gallery name. According to New Mexican folk history, Don Cacahuate was born in Santa Rosa de Lima de Abiquiu on the banks of the Chama River and was among those who moved to the Indian pueblo of Santo Tomas Apostel de Abiquiu in the mid-17-hundreds. According to legend, he still lives there today. (Maybe that's why the villagers don't want you to peer through their windows).

Don Cacahuate is a typical Abiquiu Genizaro, but also a respected and influential leader in village affairs. His wife, Dona Lagrima a Causa de Cebola, Mrs. Teadrop Caused by Onion, is a model of domestic industry in the Hispano-Indian mold of northern New Mexico. The Cacahuates live and grow with their village and their times. So when New Mexico came under Anglo-American rule in 1846, the exemplary don showed no resistance to the newcomers because the village badly needed protection from nomadic raiders. Language was the only major cause of misunderstanding between the Spanish-speaking residents and the English-speaking rulers. In order to foster cooperation with the curious strangers and serve as a good role model to villagers, Don Cacahuate decided to give his newly born son an English name. He picked the one he most often heard the Anglo-Americans call each other - Sonofabitch.

Very little is known, however, as to how Don Cacahuate reacted when the famous American painter bought a home in Abiquiu. Garcia said she was good with local children even though she did not have any of her own. She also helped pay for some improvements in the village. So it is likely that she was in good graces with a community elder such as Don Cacahuate.


It is curious, that a folk tale character would warm me up to O'Keeffe and make me pay attention to her work. I have found since then that there is more to it than the oversized flowers. But it is also clear that O'Keeffe is a quintessentially American artist, one whose work does not immediately impress a European art connoisseur. It does not surprise me that there are "no works by O’Keeffe in public collections in the UK." Ironically, the Tate calls her one of the great American "female painters", a label she would surely hate. O'Keeffe wanted nothing to do with the feminist movement and always stressed that she was a painter - not a female painter. As time goes by, her star refuses to dim and her name is getting big enough to attract crowds in galleries worldwide. No doubt many institutions and art collectors  (or should I say art investors?) would like to buy a piece of her art. It is questionable though whether American owners would sell any. The Georgia O'Keefe's Museum in Santa Fe has attracted 3 million visitors since it opened in 1997, and a good chunk of northern New Mexico, where she also had a ranch, is now called Georgia O'Keeffe Country. People still travel to the southwestern U.S. for its spectacular vistas and its unique Indian pueblos, but many are attracted by just one famous name, and I am afraid it's not Don Cacahuate, much that I would like it to be.

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