February 23, 2007

Warhol respected Indians

Warhol and the war godTo the Zunis, war gods--or Ahayu:da--have a value far greater than money. Carved by priests and placed in secret shrines on the reservation, the wooden figures are not considered art. To the Zuni people, Ahayu:da are living deities who, when disturbed, have the power to upset the world's balance. War gods are owned communally by the tribe and are never sold. If one appears in an art collection or museum, it has been stolen. Warhol's war god was probably a gallery purchase. American Indian artifacts, like cookie jars and jewelry, were one of his collecting passions.

As it turned out, my call was unnecessary. When representatives of Warhol's estate heard about the war god's background, they immediately volunteered to return it. They said Warhol could not have known of the war god's religious significance or its shady past. Ed Hayes, then the attorney for the estate, recalls the decision-making process as speedy: "When the issue came up, Fred [Hughes, Warhol's business manager, who died in 2001] said, 'We are not in the business of fencing Zuni war gods.' It took about two seconds." Although at this point all Ahayu:da in American collections have been repatriated, many major museums were not as swiftly cooperative.

No comments: