Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
Water, in all its complicated cultural and spiritual forms, is the subject of a new exhibit at the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, Arizona.
From prolonged drought to flash floods to "Water is Life," what does H2O mean to the American Southwest?
In a unique approach, curator Julie Comnick took a group of artists on a “Water Science 101 boot camp” in January 2019, pairing them with a variety of geologists, conservationists and activists to get different views of water.
“The idea was to take them on a field trip and give them ideas for artistic and visual interpretations,” Comnick says.
The artists went to rivers, lakes, the Sandia Peak and a Navajo steam plant that uses water to move slurry coal. They also learned about water policies on the Hopi reservation.
"From there, they began their artwork for the next 18 months,” Comnick says.
The result is "Parched: The Art of Water in the Southwest," where nine Arizona-based artists created works that were informed by the scientific and cultural experiences they gained on the field trips. The art flows with ideas of water in the area's natural, cultural and political landscapes.
One of the contributors, Klee Benally, Diné, of Flagstaff, is an artist, filmmaker, activist and musician.
In 2017, he made a virtual-reality experiential documentary for an exhibition addressing uranium mining and its harmful legacy. That show, titled "Hope and Trauma in a Poisoned Land," was also hosted by the Flagstaff Arts Council.
"Based on that piece, curator Julie Comnick invited me to participate in this exhibit,” Benally said.
After making the documentary and watching people view it as part of an installation, Benally wanted to "invert the medium and go a bit more analog."
"VR (virtual reality) is very insular due to the intimacy of the medium," he said. "I created two lenticular images that juxtapose images of harmony and disharmony that we face in the midst of ongoing geopolitical water wars here in the arid Southwest. Lenticular optical illusions are some of the earliest forms of image motion; they require the audience to move, which makes the pieces more dynamic."
Instead of an audience sitting in a theater or viewing with a headset, he wanted them to "walk with the story" and let the piece shift and change with their motion.
Benally also composed a video-mapped projection of a Diné weaving and a water vessel.
"The story here is a story told by the weaving. If a traditional rug could speak to what it has witnessed over the ages, what stories would it reflect when we think of water?" he said. "It's a cyclical piece that time-travels and reflects Hajíínèí, or our history as Diné and the ways that mą'ii (coyote) stole water babies and caused great catastrophe."
The artist said he wanted to make clear that "we can’t talk about water without addressing the conflicts over resource extractive industries and political theft of water from our communities.”
Water has been a controversial subject in Arizona, from a tribe's legal battle with a ski resort over snowmaking, to the pandemic, which requires more water for cleaning, he said.
Benally said he wants to make people uncomfortable with his art in a way that agitates them into action for a more healthy and just way of being.
“The fact that a significant factor of Diné susceptibility to COVID-19 is that our waters are polluted and that over 30 percent of those residing on the reservation don't have access to running water, all while corporations deplete our aquifers and swimming pools, and golf courses are filled in metropolitan areas like Phoenix, is unconscionable," he said.
And while a piece of art hanging in a gallery will not directly change that, he said, bringing focus to the issues and exposing the underlying exploitative power relationships can help shift the narrative.
"Then it's on us, of course, to take action to do something about it.”
Benally's artist statement:
"In the desert we listen to the land or we cease to exist. The gathering clouds, the intimate words comprising a prayer. The cartography of memory and song that reveal sacred springs. Digging wells, filling barrels, hauling water. How many generations have walked here, to wear this path? There is a deep earthly intimacy with this life without running water, with these roots. From this sacred mountain I see desiccated lands replete with uranium poisoned wells, strangled rivers, aquifer depletion, dying horses and dry fields. I see golf courses, water parks, wastewater snow, and glistening swimming pools. I seek to disrupt the flow of whitewashed pretenses and confront the ongoing legacy of colonial violence that views water as an exploitable commodity. This is a story of harmony and disharmony. Just as water is life, water can also bring its end."
Comnick was impressed by Benally’s art.
“His 3D mapping and imagery is beautiful and unique," she said. "We are finding that with these in-depth, interactive exhibits, people are spending a longer time viewing the art, really reading the text and absorbing the art.”
Other "Parched" artists:
— Josh Biggs, a Flagstaff-based visual journalist whose topographical photos “reside where the tension between places with and without water was most visually apparent.”
— Debra Edgerton’s project "Life Extended," looks at the beginning stage and the regeneration of the life cycle in and through water.
— Neal Galloway, Flagstaff, uses a tiered water fountain filled with sand to illustrate the fine line between bounty and depletion.
— Delisa Myles of Prescott runs an urban farm in real life and creates a performance dance piece centered on a character called Serpent River Woman who emerges from the Ice Age into a strange new world.
— Shawn Skabelund presents an abstract snow/cloud-filled pool that while pristine looking may contain contaminants from polluted water.
— Kathleen Velo, captures her imagery using camera-less, pinhole and plastic camera techniques.
— Glory Tacheenie-Campoy, Tall Tower (Kinyaanii) and Deer Spring Water (Bih bitooni) clans, prints on fabric with Indigenous words to represent emergence stories.
"Parched" is on view through Jan. 9. There will be artist interviews posted online, and the exhibit will travel to other museums in 2021. Admission is free; registration is required at flagartscouncil.org.
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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