Page 21 - the Noise July 2017
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Butterfly Crossing, 2015 Monument Symphony, 2011
“The Pollen Way” healing Through arT and acTivism WiTh shonTo Begay
By jen Turrell
There is a long tradition of activism through art. In 1937 Pablo Picasso created the paint- ing Guernica where he rendered some portion of the experience of those who suffered and died in the Nazi’s casual bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. It is considered by many to be one of the most powerful and moving anti-war paintings of all time. There are many other examples both since and before.
In some ways artists are ideally positioned in society to both witness the effects of politi- cal action and to render what they see in ways that can move and influence others. It is often in the midst of tragedy and difficulty that artists play this role of bearing witness and truth telling. Not all art is created to comment on public policy or politics. Far from it. Far more art exists to add beauty or to tell stories, to remind us of our connections to each other and the world. But when art is employed to bear witness and to tell truth, it can be incred- ibly powerful and can help to heal the wounds created by the events it speaks out against. Such is the case with the art of Shonto Begay.
Mr. Begay’s training in the arts started early. When he was a small boy, there was a time when the man who was supposed to paint the sand mandalas for a Navajo healing ceremony did not arrive. The mandalas needed to be painted. Someone pointed to the young Mr. Begay and said, “What about him? He can draw.”
And so it was that Mr. Begay learned to painstakingly paint the sand mandalas. He ad- hered to the exacting standards of the ancient templates, carefully pouring and placing the different colored sands in exactly the right spot, hunched over for three and a half, some- times four hours at a time, wearing a cloth over his mouth so his breath would not displace the fine sands. While he worked, a medicine man chanted and sang, calling in the power for the healing ceremony. Once the mandala was made, then the ceremony could begin. The sick person was brought in to either straddle or sit upon the mandala so the power could flow through them during the ceremony. Then when the ceremony was done, the sand was gathered up and disposed of carefully and respectfully.
“All gestures in healing are conscious,” says Mr. Begay. “Like all gestures in art. The brush- strokes in my paintings, they are the same.” He picked up a brush and pointed to the swirl- ing patterns on the ground in one of the paintings hanging on the wall of his downtown Flagstaff studio. Then he made the motions of the swirling patterns with the brush in the air and said, “The brush is like a baton, conducing universal music. These symbols here in the sand, they are like letters, notes to the universe. Messages to the spirit world.”
There is a profound sense of ceremony and of the sacred in much of Mr. Begay’s art. The fluid feeling in the repetition of symbol and swirl in the background, the sky, the sand, the rocks, creates a unity throughout his works, regardless of the figurative representation at the center of the piece. All around every human, animal, plant and stone, there are these rippling, watery lines that connect one thing to another and give a sense of everything be- ing part of a whole.
“I use the same strokes, the same symbols, the same shapes over and over in the same way, conscious gestures, healing gestures, like an alphabet.” Mr. Begay mentioned that Keith Haring did something similar in his work, a specific set of symbols used again and again, to create a visual language. Keith Haring also used his art to attract attention and bear witness to politically charged topics such as AIDS inaction, apartheid and nuclear proliferation.
“The Pollen Way is a sacred path, a blessing. It is a Navajo healing ceremony to maintain light and strength within.” Light poured in through Mr. Begay’s open studio window as he spoke, dust particles catching the light, swirling around him, tiny bits of gold, like pollen in the air, strewn across the sand painted mandala in the final moments of a pollen ceremony. The corn pollen offered in the ceremony is itself a prayer, and a pure gift fit for gods. The pollen ceremony is also a ceremony of healing, of reclaiming goodness and wholeness, of finding humility. The pollen is also supposed to guard against abuse.
Mr. Begay explained that many Navajos have their own pollen bags and perform a morn-
ing ritual, a personal ceremony with it to bless their day and set their feet on the pollen path every day. For Mr. Begay, both pollen and painting are daily rituals. Both are necessities.
“It’s about keeping myself alive,” Mr. Begay explained when he said that he needs to paint every day. His voice was calm and his face was placid as he told the shocking and horrific story of being kidnapped by the government as a young boy and sent to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school.
This school, like the other boarding schools of its kind, were created with the stated goal of “civilizing” Native American children and helping them to “assimilate” into white culture. But it was also a way of breaking the spirit and resistance of the Native American people. Similar tactics were used in Australia when Aboriginal children were taken from their fami- lies, denied all contact and denied all ties to their culture.
Mr. Begay was not allowed to speak his own language. He was not allowed to practice any of the rituals or ceremonies he grew up with. He was denied his own religion. He was physically abused and brutalized.
It was not until 1978 that the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, which granted Native American parents the right to have a say in whether or not their children were placed in off-reservation boarding schools. Unfortunately, this was too late for Mr. Begay who was born in 1950. He was sent to school at a time when his parents had no legal right to make decisions about his education and welfare.
“The art is an externalization of pain. But it is also beauty to counter the negative in the world. And to find Hozho — the source of all, of serenity, calm and peace. It is the way of knowing.”
As a social activist as well as an artist, Mr. Begay knows a lot about trying to counter the negative in the world. He originally moved into Flagstaff to help give a voice to the moun- tain and to try save the San Francisco Peaks from having frozen reclaimed sewage water sprayed onto its surface to create snow for tourists. “Do’Ko’oosziid, the name of the moun- tain, is a prayer. It is one of our holiest places. On the day the city approved it, lightning struck the cross on the church downtown.” Mr. Begay believed that this was a sign, a protest from nature.
Mr. Begay also went in person to protest the Dakota Access Pipe Line project. He stood with the water protectors as they were sprayed with fire hoses in below freezing weather, pepper sprayed, shot with rubber bullets and under constant threat of further violence.
“All of us earth-loving, tree-hugging people have so many causes to fight for. We fight for water, land, language. We fight for justice. Human justice, environmental justice, gender justice. And we make art with everyday consciousness.”
Others who have experienced the kind of violent acts of suppression and abuse of human rights Mr. Begay has, and responded with peace, beauty, art, and love as he has, are eventu- ally lauded as heroes and peacemakers. These are people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Malala Yousafzai.
Mr. Begay has two children, daughter Enei Begay and son Dante Begay, both of whom are following in their father’s footsteps, each in their own ways. Enei’s name means Life! in Navajo and she is a water protector and earth fighter activist living in Fairbanks, Alaska. Dante is a musician in Santa Fe.
This summer Mr. Begay was commissioned by The Peaks, A Senior Living Community, to paint 6 large murals for the residents. The murals will be located in the Rehabilitation Cen- ter. Mr. Begay took this location into consideration when deciding how to theme the murals. “I wanted to focus on visual healing. Calmness. The light within. Strength and the power of the medicine man within you.”
Presently you can see Mr. Begay’s work at The West of Moon Gallery where his “The Pol- len Way” is on display starting July 7, 2017 in Flagstaff, AZ. If you want to learn more about Mr. Begay, you can go to his website at | the NOISE arts & news | JULY 2017 • 21

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