Thanks to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum and the UCSB Art, Design & Architecture Museum, one of the best shows from Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA will remain open through the holidays and into the New Year. The messages of overcoming difference and achieving spirituality that are communicated by Sacred Art in the Age of Contact could hardly be more welcome at this time. Any good exhibition strives to tell a story through objects and images; this show has both an important story to tell and a fascinating collection of things with which to tell it. Curators Margaret Bell and Diva Zumaya have done a thorough job of contextualizing the rich array so that visitors can understand what connects a Chumash whistle made from the tibia of a deer to a devotional painting of the Virgin Mary from the Mission La Purísima. The answer? Both objects are “enconchado,” meaning that indigenous artists have inlaid them with the shells of abalone.
The persistence of Chumash techniques and imagery in mission-era Catholic material culture can be read in multiple ways, and Sacred Art in the Age of Contact encourages viewers to consider whether what they are seeing is evidence of native acceptance of religion or of a subtle resistance to conversion. The lives of Chumash who participated in the colonial neophyte system were mostly short and hard. An alarming number of indigenous people died within a decade of coming in contact with the missions. Yet just as some survived to become the great-grandparents of the band of Chumash who live among us today, so there were indigenous habits of craft and belief that also survived contact with the Latin American traditions.
These residual traces of Chumash culture appear in expressively altered, hybrid forms throughout the show, culminating in an extraordinary hand-carved confessional from the Mission Santa Inés. Native artists adorned this wooden structure with floral imagery derived from the Momoy, a datura plant that is sacred to the Chumash. Annual confession was a prerequisite for advancement within the strict neophyte system, and as a result the confessional, already a symbol of the power of the Church to absolve sin, was seen as a portal to grace. The datura plant, also known as jimsonweed, was consumed by Chumash seeking to connect with their spiritual guardians through sacred hallucinations. Covering the Catholic confessional with these signs of Momoy, the goddess of traditional Chumash herbalism, sent a clear message to any members of the tribe who might approach the box — something like “we are here with you.”
There’s much more to be seen and a series of excellent videos created to provide further context. In one, Father Larry Gosselin of the Mission Santa Barbara clarifies the role of icons in Catholic worship by reminding us that Catholics pray “with” and not “to” pictures, statues, and symbols. But then there’s also the voice of Chumash elder Ernestine de Soto, who explains the cult of the Virgin to which so many of these amazing images are devoted this way: “You pray to the mother because she can go to the father and bail you out.”
Sacred Art in the Age of Contact shows through January 14, 2018, at the S.B. Historical Museum (136 E. De la Guerra St.).