Tonita Vigil Peña (Quah Ah), American (San Ildefonso Pueblo [P’o-Woh-Ge-Owinge]), 1893–1949
Indigenous cultures began cultivating corn, or maize, in the Southwest 4,000 years ago. They ate corn at almost every meal and dried, stored, and preserved it for later use. They ground corn meal for use in flatbreads or to thicken stews. They braided the husks into sleeping mats and baskets and used them for cornhusk dolls. They used corncobs to make darts and ceremonial rattling sticks or to burn as fuel.
This painting by Tonita Vigil Pena—whose Indian name is Quah Ah (KWAH-Ah), meaning “White Coral Beads”—illustrates part of a ceremony that celebrates the corn harvest.
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The Green Corn Ceremony is a celebration of thanksgiving for the yearly corn harvest. It involves sacrificing the first green corn of the season to ensure the health of the rest of the harvest. The Green Corn Ceremony typically occurs in late July or August, based on the ripening of the corn crop, and involves dancing, feasting, fasting, and religious observations.
In this painting, a pair of male and female dancers are led by a man carrying a staff and accompanied by a singer and drummer. On their heads, the female dancers wear tablitas, a type of headdress that mimics the stepped shape of a mesa and also suggests rain clouds. The male dancers wear typical Pueblo white boot moccasins and knotted cotton sashes on their shins. The fringe on their clothing is designed to move as they dance. The figures wear body paint of brown ochre and white. As is typical of this type of ceremony, men wear face paint but women do not. The women are barefoot as they dance in order to connect to the earth.
The paintings of Quah Ah, or Tonita Vigil Peña, are controversial. Some people criticized Peña for depicting native ceremonies because she is a woman. Ceremonies are traditionally the domain of men and so can only be painted by men. Others felt it was inappropriate to share images of ceremony with outsiders. On the other hand, some people believe her paintings demonstrate the importance of ceremonial dances for keeping Puebloan culture alive. Her husband defended her work, claiming that she only depicted images of ceremonies that were shared with outsiders. This subject was chosen because Green Corn Ceremony dances, like this one, are open to the public.
MEET THE ARTIST
Tonita Vigil Peña (Quah Ah) was the only female in a group of early Pueblo watercolor artists known as the San Ildefonso Self-Taught Group. Unlike many women of her time, she defied tradition, choosing painting over the traditional female arts of pottery and weaving. By the time she was 25, her paintings were featured in galleries and museum exhibitions. She was also an instructor at the Santa Fe and Albuquerque Indian Schools. She is known for her scenes of daily and ceremonial life at the pueblo.
Watch this video to see art historian Joyce Szabo discuss this work. Another video on Tonia Peña is featured in the Gender Roles & Family section of this resource.