More than 140 Cahuilla baskets are housed at the Benton Museum of Art, and though they are aesthetically beautiful—which is part of what makes them art—they are not merely museum “specimens.” Rather, they represent the continuous relationships that Cahuilla people have with their traditions, ancestral knowledge, lands, and one another.
Many of the Cahuilla baskets housed at the museum were collected in the Coachella Valley in the 1920s by a Pomona College graduate named Emil Steffa (class of 1899) and are foundational items in the college’s collection. Steffa was unusual among his contemporaries because he recorded the names of some of the basket makers he collected from. As a result, we know who the makers were and can reconnect their work to their living descendants.
Continuty presents a selection of Cahuilla baskets housed at the Benton along with their histories and long standing relationships with their relatives. This exhibition tells a story of the importance of reunifying Native collection items with living descendants, while also acknowledging the institutional histories that have impacted local Native American communities.
The ancestral items at the Benton want to be touched, held, sung to, loved, and prayed with. Through their patterns and forms they manifest ancestral teachings and resilience. This exhibition at the Benton recognizes that it is important to showcase not only the aesthetic beauty of Cahuilla baskets but also their continued relationship to tribal members. The Benton and the curator are currently collaborating with Cahuilla tribal members, the Nex’wetem Basketry group, and Native community members from the surrounding area to enrich the stories of these baskets. We invite you to engage with us.