Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
Three vibrant pairs of festooned moccasins dance across a 111-foot wall in a kicky new mural in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Artist Nanibah Chacon, Diné and Chicana, spent 10 days painting the Indigenous mural, next to the city's Indian health clinic.
The Albuquerque, New Mexico, woman says a public art initiative curated and organized by Yatika Fields approached her a year ago, citing a lack of representation of Native artists and art in an area with a high urban Native population.
"As an entrance to community centers, they wanted engaged work that represented tribes," Chacon said. "We talked about me going for a residency, but when the COVID shutdown started, that didn’t happen. We had further conversations, and I had a small window in the fall to do a mural.”
Fields, Osage, Cherokee and Creek, noted she has known Chacon for some time.
As Native artists, "we all know of each other," she said. "It's not that big of a circle we have, in academics, arts and so forth.”
She said the mural needed to have a "huge emphasis" on community.
"Many public art projects happen without the public even being involved," Fields said. "I wanted this project to be a learning experience for all involved — invite the community out for conversations. Murals these days seem to just take space without any representations of intention which can lead to divide and social equity problems.”
Chacon is known for her female figurative works using bold jewel and primary colors with a strong narrative that incorporates Native, Chicana and American culture.
She often uses female characters to explore ideas of feminism, sexuality, softness, power, culture, traditionalism, and modernism. She currently has a painting in the Heard Museum's "Larger Than Memory" show, in Phoenix.
Chacon was born in Gallup, New Mexico, and grew up both in Chinli, Arizona, and Corrales, New Mexico. Her clan is To dich iini (bitter water).
At 16, she was introduced to graffiti and began a prolific career as a graffiti street artist for the next 10 years. But with the birth of her son, she left the street art world and focused on oil painting.
“It was remarkable how this piece came together,” she says by phone. “in a short amount of time when it was safer to travel."
Chacon said she included the local community as much as possible in her design.
"I wanted to paint what I missed - inclusivity, community, rituals, gathering, interaction, ceremonies, powwows, even just being out, walking somewhere. The idea of walking and powwows turned to women in Tulsa who would send me their moccasins to use in my design."
She collaborated with Post Traditional Collective (@posttradish), which supplied its moccasins and leggings for reference.
"An important element to this mural was that each moccasin design was inspired by an actual pair owned by women in Tulsa," she said. "For me, this is the element of this work that is most essential. Connecting with community on concepts and ideas, but also physically so they are reflected in the work.”
The finished mural is called “Connected Pathways," completed by Chacon and her apprentice, Lynnette Haozous.
The result is simple, powerful — an image you can hear in your head as the mocs dance across the wall. Strong, colorful Native geometric patterns anchor the design in the long space.
“The idea of connectedness in different ways and interaction, is something we understand but don’t have to explain,” Chacon continues. “To me, this was the perfect way to show that.
Chacon said her piece has been well-received.
"The location is next to the Indian health clinic so lots of people walk by there every day, and it’s beautiful to connect with people outside like that," she said. "Making murals is special that way — they love to see art being made, the process. It happened organically, and now it is also a voting place.
"There was a DJ in the beginning, and it was so nice to see the voters together, hanging out, getting registered, and adding to their community connecting past to present to future. It all came together in an honest way. For me, it felt it was needed. The painting took a week and a half with my apprentice, and Yatika helped with logistics.”
Fields added the Native community came out and said many words of appreciation.
"It was noted that the representation was glad to be seen finally in Tulsa," she said. "Thanks to Tim Phoenix for letting us use his wall; he was a major ally in this.”
Chacon exhibits across the United States and teaches art in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2004, she received her Bachelor’s in Art Education from the University of New Mexico.
Chacon was the recipient of the Reggie Gammon award in 2011.
She received 2nd place in oil painting at the SWAIA 91st annual Santa Fe Indian Market, her first year exhibiting at there.
In 2012, she returned to the realm of public arts, creating a large scale 100-by-30-foot mural, which integrated radio transmission, for the International ISEA Arts and Technology Symposium and the city of Albuquerque.
In 2013, she created a 30-foot mural at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, to accompany the first contemporary all-female exhibit in the space.
Learn more at nanichacon.com.
Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, The Grammy Museum, The Queens Museum, and has produced three films on Native musicians.
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This story has been updated to correct two photo captions.