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Sculpture by New Mexico artist displayed in Oval Office

The Oval Office of the White House is newly redecorated for the first day of President Joe Biden’s administration. On the top shelf of the bookcase sits “Swift Messenger” by Santa Fe sculptor Allan Houser. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

On the top shelf of a built-in bookcase inside the Oval Office sits a row of books.

The row is split in two by a sculpture of a Native American riding a horse.

That piece of art – “Swift Messenger” – was created by Santa Fe sculptor Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache).

bright spotIt was created in 1990 and was a gift from Houser to the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, the first Japanese American elected to both houses of Congress.

Inouye was the Senate sponsor for the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian and Houser’s “Sacred Rain Arrow” was in the Senate Committee Room for many years.

“Swift Messenger” was gifted to NMAI by Inouye’s widow after his death and now is on loan to the White House.

New Mexicans are familiar with Houser’s work, as many of his sculptures are displayed in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

“Swift Messenger” by Allan Houser (Courtesy of Haozous Place)

The Albuquerque Museum has two pieces – one inside, one outside – by Houser. The Albuquerque International Sunport is home to “Abstract Crown Dancer #1.”

There are more than a dozen pieces around Santa Fe, including sculptures at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, the Governor’s Mansion and “Morning Prayer” at the front of the Capitol building.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden opened the Oval Office for the world to see the art collection that fills the space.

Behind the Resolute Desk is a bust of César Chávez. The office also includes busts of Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt and former President Harry Truman.

According to Biden’s office, “It was important for President Biden to walk into an Oval Office that looked like America and started to show the landscape of who he is going to be as president.”

On that bookshelf resides a piece of Indigenous culture. “Swift Messenger” depicts a Chiricahua Apache warrior riding a horse.

“It has the Chiricahua Apache boot, which is a moccasin with a turned up tip,” said Tracy Cable, the head of tourism operations and development at Haozous Place, a sculpture park and gallery featuring Houser’s work. “This was a boot that the people designed because they came from the desert and rocky conditions. Having the front turned up, one couldn’t prick their foot.”

Houser-Haozous family at the dedication of “The Future” at 500 Marquette Building in 1986.

Cable says having Houser’s work in the Oval Office is a chance for the public to get to know more about Houser.

“Allan is the greatest Native American sculptor of our times,” Cable said. “I think that he brought important awareness to the culture of Indigenous people not just in this area. His work focused on the dignity of the Plains Indians, Kiowa, Apache and the Navajo. He always instilled the human dignity in every single culture.”

Houser was born Allan Capron Haozous on June 30, 1914. In 1937, Houser had his first solo exhibition – 19 watercolor paintings – at the Museum of New Mexico. Within two years of graduating from the Santa Fe Indian School, he had shown his work at the Art Institute of Chicago and the New York World’s Fair.

Houser later became a faculty member at the Institute of American Indian Art, where he set up the sculpture department. In 1975 he retired from teaching to focus on his art.

In 1992, he became the first Native American awarded the National Medal of Arts. He died in 1994.

Cable said Houser’s sculptures never portrayed people as victims.

“He portrayed them as sad at times, but also as strong peacekeepers,” Cable said. “A lot of his focus were mothers and children with a sense of family and love.”

Andrew Connors, Albuquerque Museum director, said Houser had a willingness to alter his style, all while pushing himself into new directions.

“Some of his early work was in the Native American watercolor tradition,” Connors said. “Yet he very quickly explored avant garde traditions. He was right there working with others like Henry Moore in stylizing the figure and bringing avant garde modernity and abstraction to a Native American vocabulary.”

Connors said looking at Houser’s work, one could see a Native American story, as well as the avant garde experimentation.

“That makes him an artist of great influence, not only in a Native American context, but in a 20th century context,” Connors said.

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