Tonita Vigil Peña (Quah Ah), American (San Ildefonso Pueblo [P’o-Woh-Ge-Owinge]), 1893–1949
Southwest rituals and ceremonies maintain balance and harmony for individuals, the community, and the spirits of the natural world. Historically, both men and women took part in ceremonies related to their roles in their community.
This painting by San Ildefonso Pueblo artist Tonita Vigil Peña shows a hunter dancing in a Buffalo Dance. This ceremony is performed by men to ensure success in the hunt.
explore the object
The body of the man who performs the Buffalo Dance is painted black, and he is bare above the waist. He wears a heavy, shaggy buffalo headdress. His clothing consists of a kilt and moccasins. He also wears a turquoise and coral necklace, turquoise bands on his wrists, animal garters with feathers on his shins and arms, and a sash with bells. In one hand, he holds a bow and arrows. In the other, he holds a rasp. Rasps are a type of musical instrument. They are notched sticks that make music when rubbed with another stick or bone.
The paintings of Quah Ah, or Tonita Vigil Peña, are controversial. Some Pueblo criticized Peña for depicting native ceremonies because she is a woman. Ceremonies are traditionally the domain of men, and so—in their view—can only be painted by men. Others felt it was inappropriate to share images of ceremonies with outsiders. However, other Pueblo 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 image was chosen because Buffalo Dances are performed for the public.
meet the artist
Quah Ah, or Tonita Vigil Peña, 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 Tonita Vigil Peña’s work. Another video about Tonita Peña is featured in the Food section of this resource.