A Navajo Artists Family’s Take on Love, Compassion, and Resistance

SANTA FE, NM — A wall text panel introducing Abeyta | To’Hajiilee K’é emphasizes the Navajo concept of hózhó, which means “beauty, balance, and a sense of being at one with the natural world.” This invocation applies both to the works on display by four members of the Abeyta family, as well as to an overarching idea of what family means to Navajo people. Beyond kinship, family is a receptacle of collective memory, a wellspring of self-determination, and a protector of traditions and ways of life that have been threatened by colonialism. The pandemic and the disproportionate number of deaths in the Navajo Nation underscored the inequality still rampant amongst Indigenous communities in the US. 

Family, then, is at times political, and has been forced to be such due to the manifold threats that Anglo culture has brought upon the Navajo. The politics on display in Abeyta, though, encourage us to think beyond activism and legislation as a means for political progress — although there is that, too, especially in the biography of Pablita Abeyta, who negotiated for Indigenous rights as a lobbyist for the Navajo Nation and as a staff member at the US House Interior Committee’s Office of Indian Affairs.

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Narciso Abeyta, 1918–1998 (Navajo), “Lambs at Play” (1948), gouache on paper (photo by Addison Doty)

But the works in Abeyta remind us that life as a politically active and aware human also involves acknowledging the world around us, celebrating our past, and appreciating the land that we inhabit as well as our relationships with other living beings. The dominant message of the exhibition is the importance of community and living a full and joyful life — maintaining and seeking hózhó even as imbalance seems to consume the world.

Narciso Abeyta came of age as an artist at a time when his work was shown in museums of natural history or ethnography, as attested by his 1935 drawing, “Art Peau-Rouge D’Aujourd’ Hui,” on a poster advertising an exhibition of work by students at Santa Fe Indian School. Narciso was also a Golden Gloves boxer, and he served as a Navajo Code Talker for the US military during World War II, but in the first half of the 20th century, curators, historians, and thus the general (White) public still considered Native art an anthropological specimen. 

Narciso Abeyta, 1918–1998 (Navajo), “Navajo Wedding at Canyoncito, NMex (Elizabeth Abeyta’s Wedding)” (c. 1970), gouache on paper (photo by Addison Doty)

After the war, when he had recovered from shell shock enough to begin studying art again, he enrolled at the University of New Mexico, where he studied with Transcendentalist painter Raymond Jonson. Among the subject matter he explored during this period were depictions of Navajo myth. His paintings of skinwalkers, witches who take on animal forms, were the first visual representations of this subject, which is still taboo in Navajo culture. In one untitled drawing on view in Abeyta, a werewolf claws at a Navajo woman, pulling her from her horse. The shallow space of the flattened picture plane forces all the action to the fore and underscores the inescapable violence of the scene, all without one drop of blood.

Elizabeth Abeyta, 1955–2006 (Navajo), “Rain Watch — Cloud Gathering” (1995), clay, paint, leather, shells, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (27/97) (photo by NMAI Photo Services)

Narciso’s daughters, Pablita and Elizabeth, inherited their father’s gift for portraying dynamic movement in their multimedia ceramic sculptures. Elizabeth’s Mudhead Kachinas (Navajo clowns or tricksters) convey the humor and joy that permeate Navajo life. Figures sit, kneel, and dance, the tension in their bodies evident through their traditional clothing, detailed down to the leather moccasin or fringed corn husk. In her “Rain Watch — Cloud Gathering” (1995), a group of Mudheads huddle together, carrying tiny canteens, miniature decorated pots at their feet. The slight variations in their stances and in the decorations of their feathered masks impart individuality to each of them — a sense of uniqueness even as they stand unified as a group.

This unity is echoed in Pablita’s “Navajo Sisters — A Secret” (c. 1990–91), in which two women are bound together within a single, pear-shaped vessel that doubles as a black robe or blanket. The bulbous shape suggests comfort and intimacy as the sisters face each other, whispering, communing.

Pablita Abeyta, 1953–2017 (Navajo), “Navajo Sisters–a Secret” (c. 1990–1991), clay, paint, turquoise (photo by NMAI Photo Services)

Andrea Hanley (Navajo), chief curator at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, knew Pablita when both were living in Washington, DC, and working in various legislative posts. Pablita took the young Hanley under her wing, offered friendship, and helped her navigate the ins and outs of national politics. Hanley sees Abeyta | To’Hajiilee K’é as a love letter to the entire Abeyta family, and to Pablita especially, whose unrelenting efforts on behalf of Native rights led to the establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian, an institution that thrives today as a wellspring and center of Indigenous art and culture — a revolutionary step away from the classification of Native art as an ethnographic subject. 

Tony Abeyta, b. 1965 (Navajo), “Autumnal Flower Bombs” (2019), acrylic on raw canvas (photo by Addison Doty)

Tony Abeyta’s paintings complicate the legacy handed down to him by his father and sisters. As a biracial artist, Tony embraces Navajo and Anglo visual languages, and his paintings allude to American abstract traditions, Native iconography, and some of the abuses the American government has enacted on Navajo land and people. Across several large-scale paintings (Abeyta also features Tony’s sculpture, metalwork, and jewelry), motifs such as moloch blossoms, seed pods, abstracted double-lobed shapes that echo the silhouette of Pablita’s “Navajo Sisters,” faces whose mouths form the “o” of mid-song, torpedoes, and spherical bombs (possibly references to the US government’s history of laying waste to Navajo land in pursuit of its nuclear weapons agenda) layer over one another, no one shape privileged. There is harmony in the chaos, hózhó made manifest, a striving for balance in the face of a looming threat.

Abeyta | To’Hajiilee K’é continues at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (704 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through January 7, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Andrea Hanley.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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