First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 24

While many Navajo viewers today would immediately recognize sand- painting imagery in both Nailor’s and Begay’s work, non-Native viewers may just as easily identify such images as merely decorative. But the sandpainting designs in their work were much more than simple decoration. During the time Begay and Nailor painted, non-Native viewers of their work—their intended audience— would have had at least some familiarity with Navajo ceremonial sandpainting. While that audience would undoubtedly lack a deep understanding of the role of ceremonial sandpainting in Navajo philosophy and life, such viewers would, nonetheless, have been exposed to secular forms of the practice and its iconography and would have recognized, at least vaguely, the source of such imagery. In most cases, such familiarity would be derived from viewers’ experi- ence of touristic spectacles. Typically, the sites of such entertainment would have been Southwest Native arts fairs and festivals. However, Navajo sandpainting also served as spectacle in other regions of the United States in the early to mid-20th century. International exhibitions at which sandpaintings were created for public consumption included Chicago’s 1933–34 Century of Progress Exposition, where renowned ceremonial practi- tioner and weaver Hastiin Klah (Navajo, 1867–1937) demonstrated his weaving of sandpainting designs, and San Diego’s 1935–36 California Pacific International Exposition. Major museum exhibitions that featured sandpainting demonstra- tions included the pathbreaking Indian Art of the United States, held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1941. Sandpainters also performed in traveling shows organized by non-Native showmen and entrepreneurs, demonstrating their practice along with silver workers and weavers for audiences in school audito- riums and at women’s club gatherings throughout the country. Ostensibly intended to raise awareness of the plight of American Indians and the need for reform of federal Indian policy, such 22 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM performances were often thinly veiled spectacles intended to stimulate sales of Native arts and crafts by the non-Native entrepreneurs who organized the events. Such individuals seized on any opportu- nity to stimulate tourism to the Southwest, thus increasing their chances for sales of arts and crafts not only to those attending performances in their hometowns across the continent, but to many observers who were prompted to visit Arizona and New Mexico through their exposure to the exotic customs of the Native inhab- itants. These performances stressed spectacle over substance, and, rather than contributing to a greater understanding of Navajo culture, they often fostered misunderstanding of the aims and means of ceremonial sandpainting. One notable example of the willful fostering of such misunderstanding was a 1923 ceremony in Gallup, New Mexico, orchestrated by the Fred Harvey Company and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF). Performing before Fred Harvey Company officials, AT&SF dignitaries, and 2,000 spectators, 30