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I called a fellow physician in Tuba City about a month ago to get his guidance. I had a patient coming down off a several week binge who was open to inpatient rehab. Despite my being here 28 plus years I wanted to confirm with my friend who has been working on the rez 30 years that despite there being high rates of drug and alcohol use on the reservation there’s still no treatment facilities. I was hoping the resources had appeared miraculously under my radar. Sadly, he confirmed that we’ve got new jails in Tuba City and Kayenta to temporarily detain people for public intoxication but no rehabilitation centers. Yet, the Navajo nation and indigenous people in general have one of the highest suicide rates in the country which often occurs under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. It’s a problem that’s been well documented.
“The game of life is hard to play.
I’m going to lose it anyway.
The losing card I’ll someday lay.
So this is all I have to say…
That suicide is painless.
It brings on many changes.
And I can take or leave it if I please.”
MASH theme song by Johnny Mandel
Case in point. I’ve know Josie since shortly after I arrived in 1987. I’ve taken care of her in her pregnancies, am watching her kids grow up and was with her on that hot, windy day in June of 1994 when she walked down the aisle for the first time, her father at her side while her sister secured her dress.
When I went to her in 2011 with the idea of photographing her infant daughter JC for a campaign to raise awareness on CO2 emissions she and her husband Hank were there for me.
Her oldest son Kordell attended high school in Tuba City. He competed against my son Jamaal who attended school in Page. Josie and I talked often about how our boys were doing. She told me that Kordell enjoyed competing against Jamaal who made him play harder, play his best.
Talking with Josie now a year after Kordell shot himself at age 16 it sounds like she could see it coming. Despite their best efforts Kordell didn’t heed his parents interventions. Though the reservation is dry, drugs and alcohol are plentiful. Now it’s Josie’s mission to raise awareness regarding drug and alcohol use while trying to get the tribe to build a rehabilitation center. She realizes the problem is multifaceted – that the education system needs a robust overhaul, after school programs need to be created and sustained, youth centers are needed and meaningful work is missing on the reservation where the unemployment rate hovers around 50%. Despite the odds she feels it’s what she’s being called to do. She doesn’t want Kordell’s death to be in vain though 2 other suicides occurred in the family shortly after Kordell’s. Yet she remains positive.
There’s work to be done; the struggle continues. Stay tuned…
“The war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war and he does at his best what lover’s do which is to reveal the beloved to himself and with that revelation to make freedom real.” James Baldwin
When I started wheat pasting large images along the roadside in 2009 I imagined it as an opportunity to deepen my relationship with the community where I work on the rez. I often thought of this process as an experiment in building community in which I knew the medium for building community but was uncertain of the outcome. What I’ve learned along the way is the importance of trust and how the process of building community parallels nurturing a friendship.
As a documentary photographer I believe everyone has a unique story though not everyone wants their story told. But for those who do a trusting relationship established over time with the story teller is critical to an objective telling of this story. I’ve learned inadvertently that taking someone’s words and writing or painting them directly onto their face is akin to the exercise of falling backwards trusting that the person positioned behind you will really catch you and prevent you from hitting the floor. Unlike writing onto a photograph of someone’s face, spending 30 to 60 minutes sitting 18 inches away from someone you may not know well exploring the contours of their face, their lips, gently writing on their eyelids is a bonding, trust building exchange. That someone would let you do this, photograph them and create a public mural is tangible evidence of their conviction to their beliefs, to their words. As James Baldwin said, they are willing to reveal the beloved to himself and with that revelation make freedom real.
Rey Cantil painting the words of Flagstaff activists onto their faces regarding the controversial practice of using reclaimed waste water to make artificial snow on a sacred mountain.
The experiment in community building is ongoing. I continue falling backwards believing someone will be there to catch me. And while I don’t want to be known as the guy who writes on people’s face, it is an effective tool for getting a heartfelt message out. Thank you to the community for trusting me with your words and joining me in this adventure.
labrona x jetsonorma in cow springs, august 2014
Kyle: What pedagogical strategies have you employed that allow students and/or community members to a) recognize the influences that shape the way they see, value, and experience natural landscapes? b) how has that particular understanding resulted in the marginalization or outright dismissal of those peoples who approach those landscapes with a different—sometimes competing—view? How do we see the complexity in natural spaces? What is the role of art in translating this complexity? What does privilege and oppression look like in contested spaces? How can art be used to transform our idea of were oppression takes place, and what it’s impact is on people and landscapes?
me: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to evaluate and discuss my process. I find the introduction to your question revealing in that it reflects your position as an academician. You ask “What pedagogical strategies have you employed that allow students and/or community members to…” This language is troubling to me in that in assuming I practice a “pedagogical strategy,” it creates a false power dynamic with me in the role of teacher and the community as student. Yet in my 28 years as a primary care physician and more recently as a public artist on the Diné nation my role is both teacher and student. Certainly as a public artist interacting with the community while erecting work often in areas where I’m not known as a physician, away from my power base, I am primarily a student.
- What I read into the framework of your question is what strategy do I use to engage the community through my art practice? For me your first question becomes “What strategy do I use to engage the community through my art practice to recognize the influences that shape the way community members see, value, and experience natural landscapes? Or in what way does the art I create shape the way community members see, value and experience natural landscapes?”
The scale of my work and its presentation as large black and white images of people from the community challenges people to perceive their surroundings differently. The work appears on manmade structures but is presented in such a way that it reflects the vastness of the Colorado Plateau in its scale. The reservation doesn’t have a tradition of public art or muralism. While people are accustomed to seeing photographs their primary association with photography is color images on a monitor, in magazine or on billboards. The scale of my images and it’s presentation on manmade structures along the roadside influence the way people see, value and experience natural landscapes. The art is also an opportunity for me to challenge the community to see not only the natural environment (landscape) differently but their social environment differently as well in that a lot of the imagery I chose celebrates the culture.
While one might object to the presentation of unsolicited murals as intrusive; the work is on par with the intrusiveness of advertising but it’s intention is to foster a sense of pride and enhanced self esteem. Most people have come to accept advertising even in unadulterated, natural landscapes even if they don’t agree with what’s being promoted. Simple, large, black and white depictions of people who inhabit these spaces invite viewers to engage those people and to create dialog both within the community and between outsiders and community members. This is in contrast to the purpose of advertising images found concurrently in those landscapes.
- How has that particular understanding resulted in the marginalization or outright dismissal of those peoples who approach those landscapes with a different—sometimes competing—view?
Those people with contrasting, competing interpretations of the landscape and the art that appears in the landscape are not without means to challenge my work in that it’s sometimes defaced. For this reason public art and more specifically street art is considered the most democratic of art forms in the way this dialog between practitioners and the community evolves.
As a case study, let’s look at art that is currently being generated in public spaces on the reservation and in Flagstaff to honor the sanctity of sacred spaces, specifically the Confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River. This is a site where a developer based in Scottsdale is proposing to build a resort that’ll impact the ecology of the area as well as the way various tribes that hold this site sacred will relate to one another. As a consequence the tribe is divided over the issue as the Bodaway Gap/Cedar Ridge communities on the reservation have an unemployment rate around 60% or higher. There are few employment opportunities around this area. A reductionist view of the question being asked by Traditionalists who oppose the development is whether its worth sacrificing the culture for short sighted economic development of one of the 7 wonders of the world. Art that has been generated around this issue speaks to the uniqueness and sacredness of the Confluence and the Grand Canyon without consideration of the competing view for economic exploitation. There are times when art shouldn’t be objective and has to take sides. Perhaps it’s considered propaganda but artists have to decide where they stand on an issue, understand their intention and feel good about their role in supporting the good fight.
- How do we see the complexity in natural spaces? What is the role of art in translating this complexity?
- What does privilege and oppression look like in contested spaces? How can art be used to transform our idea of where oppression takes place, and what it’s impact is on people and landscapes?
My art project is an example of how privilege looks in contested spaces. I think frequently about how my day job as a physician supports my passion for creating public art yet the public art is used in a way to support my work as a physician. By this I mean my work in the clinic is to promote wellness while my work in the field as a public artist promotes emotional and psychosocial wellness. But no doubt the medium I chose for public art is heavily dependent on a consistent funding source to create it (otherwise identified as my salary).
I’d suggest billboards represent a form of oppression in contested spaces. For example, in 1989 the Pepsi corporation erected a billboard along Highway 89 near Moenkopi Wash outside Tuba City directed at motorists traveling from Flagstaff and Phoenix to Page and points further north. The billboard depicted cold, refreshing cans of soft drinks to relieve the motorists thirst traversing the hot, barren but beautiful Painted Desert. However, the ad neglected to recognize that the corn syrup laden drinks depicted appear in a region of the country with one of the highest rates of adult onset diabetes. Art was used to transform our idea of where oppression takes place.
It used to read “Welcome to Pepsi Country.”
Thanks again for this opportunity to share my process + philosophy.