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Beneath A Turquoise Sky: Navajo Painters and Their World


(above: Harrison Begay (born 1917), Navajo Maidens, c. 1970, 14 x 10 inches, Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, No. 1996.27.0206, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City.)


The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum® in Oklahoma City will feature Navajo painters in a special exhibition, Beneath A Turquoise Sky: Navajo Painters and Their World. The exhibition is scheduled to open June 25, 2004, and remain open until January 30, 2005. (right: Harrison Begay (born 1917), Painting Sandpainting, c. 1971, 21-3/4 x 15-1/2 inches, Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, No. 1996.27.0209, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City.)

Drawing from the Museum's expansive Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, Steve Grafe, Curator of Native American Collections selected 40 items to showcase how some 20th-century Navajo painters portrayed their world. Included in the exhibit are works by Harrison Begay Gerald Nailor, Quincy Tahoma and Andrew Van Tsihnahjinnie who received their initial training in the Santa Fe Indian School's painting studio of the 1930s and 1940s. These four artists are reported to have painted and sold more pictures than all of the other Studio alumni combined. The works in the exhibit date from the 1930s through the 1970s.

One of the major milestones in 20th-century American Indian art was the 1932 founding of the painting studio at the Santa Fe Indian School. Not only did the appearance of the Santa Fe Studio represent a break with the prior governmental policy of encouraging Indians to abandon their culture, it actually provided art instruction to a number of individuals whose work defined public perceptions of Native American art during much of the last century and influenced two succeeding generations of Native artists. The Studio provided a training ground for approximately 30 significant painters from a dozen tribes. Of this number, seven were Navajo.

The Santa Fe Indian School was initially founded to help Native young people learn marketable skills and the advent of art classes furthered the school's mission. Santa Fe had become an art center with the coming of the railroad to the Southwest and Native American art accounted for a fair portion of arts-related revenue. As one congressman aptly noted, "Who wants to go West to buy a picture painted by an Indian of three apples on a plate!" (left: Harrison Begay (born 1917), The Weavers, c. 1952, 14-3/4 x 21-1/4 inches, Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, No. 1996.27.0219, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City.)

The Studio fostered new public appreciation of American Indian painting by encouraging students to produce work that replicated traditional forms and appearances, while maintaining tribal and individual distinction. The school's curriculum sought to "evolve new motifs, styles, and techniques in character with the old" and the existing Navajo tradition allowed for the appropriation of sandpainting designs. According to Studio teacher Dorothy Dunn, "The sandpainting holds in its richly productive systems of design and abstract symbolism potentials for far greater contributions to modern Navajo art than have usually been recognized." Artists Gerald Nailor and Harrison Begay were particularly adept at placing isolated sandpainting motifs in their otherwise representational compositions and these elements are now synonymous with Navajo Studio-style art. (right: Harrison Begay (born 1917), Navajo Looking for Lost Horses, no date, 16 x 17 inches, Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, No. 1996.27.0197, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City.)

"When Dorothy Dunn established in 1932 the Studio, the fine-arts program at the Santa Fe Indian School, she helped coalesce local and national movements to formulate a painting genre and foster an international market for Indian painting. Although she directed the program for only five years, the Studio continued until 1962.
"Dunn insisted that her students, who ranged in age from adolescence to early 20s, develop a unique style and not mimic societal fashions or expectations. Dunn and her supporters believed that through the establishment of an original style Indian artists would 'produce articles of real worth, not Indian curios.' This would, in essence, be the true American art.
"These painters worked in a style characterized by flat outline and color without modeling or the use of perspective.
"Dunn assumed that an innate artistic ability resided in each of her students; therefore, her method stressed encouraging the student's own natural ability rather than her 'teachings' about art. Specifically, Dunn believed she could not teach Indian painting because her students, as Indian people, inherently knew more about it. It was her role to reveal to her students their own intrinsic knowledge and understanding of this indigenous art-form. The students, to their credit, always painted from their own experiences, producing authentic portraits of their lives.
"Dunn's goals of facilitating the development of artists and enlisting public interest in Indian painting were being met with overwhelming success.
"Dunn and mentors Dietrich and Kenneth Chapman, curator of the Museum of New Mexico, believed that by stimulating patronage of Indian painting as a genuine artistic endeavor they would gradually supplant the influence of Indian traders who encouraged artists to make inexpensive souvenirs for the tourist market. "
Editor's note: above excerpts from Modern by Tradition: Dorothy Dunn & the Studio Style by Bruce Bernstein (1995 Museum of New Mexico Press) courtesy of Adobe Gallery, Santa Fe.

In their works, Navajo painters drew on visual richness of their own land and people. The vastness of their reservation allowed them a sense of expansive autonomy. Their paints show the remote landscape and private moments of Navajo life and include singers, dancers, shepherds, and horsemen and women.


(above Andrew Van Tsihnahjinnie (1918-2000), Untitled, no date, 21 x 28 inches, Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, No. 1996.27.1296, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City.)


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