Bookburning: Still A Thing

30 Jul

I’ve been reading through the material associated with this suppressed history of the Hopi potter Nampeyo and am convinced this is a case of abuse of power, cultural appropriation, censorship and racism.

Linda Wiener, a friend of the author Steve Elmore, has been blogging about the suit brought against Steve by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University after he self-published his book “In Search of Nampeyo: The Early Years, 1875-1892” and it proceeded to win awards. The book discusses, in part, a collection of Hopi pots in the museum’s collection. Steve is a southwestern art dealer and collector in Santa Fe and has been intensely interested in Nampeyo for decades. He is at the very least acquainted with many of her descendents, as an art trader, and travelled to the museum with one of them at one point, where they examined the Hopi collection and she helped him learn more about how to do identification.

The Hopi were not historically particularly disposed to sign their pots, so attribution of early work can be difficult.

Peabody originally contracted to co-publish the book, but after rejecting a couple of drafts, they signed a contract reversal and their representative encouraged Steve to get it published elsewhere. So he did it himself, and then, when the book started to take off, they sued him for a million dollars, claiming damage to their image because of his supposedly inadequate images, and filed an injunction to keep him from selling his book, the cost of which, 2500 count, ran him $37,000.

The whole suit is wrong on so many levels. Reading Linda’s detailed blog, it’s clear that Peabody was disingenuous about the contract. The photographs are, from what I have seen, just fine. People love the book. Many Hopi signed Linda’s petition, including descendents of Nampeyo.

But this museum, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that they not only own this Hopi pottery in their collection, which they didn’t recognize as Nampeyo’s early work, but also that they are entitled to control how it is visually represented, and that this right supersedes all claims, despite it being work of a woman from another culture, another nation. As if rigidly controlling images of art does not work to control stories about art, stories about artists, and the stories the art itself tells. As if it’s possible to separate any of these things. As if it’s morally acceptable to do so, in order to ensure you maximize your profits from your extra special photos of work you have nothing to do with, work you wound up with by the whim of some collector.

I find this story really disturbing. You can read the petition here:

And you can read Linda’s blog here:

And you can peruse Steve’s website here:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: