First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 28

above Harrison Begay (Navajo, 1917–2012), Navajo Weaver and Helper, 1967, watercolor on paper, 15 × 17½ in., collection of the Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff, C1044. Image courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona. opposite Gerald Nailor Sr. (Navajo, 1917–1952), The Yellow Corn Maiden’s Prayer to the Dawn, 1948, watercolor on paper, 12 × 14 in., collection of the Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff, C1860. Image courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona. Begay’s set of four paintings recounts the Navajo Creation Story, as told in one of the most common chant- ways—the Blessingway. The four sacred mountains mark the limits of the Navajo homeland. First Man and First Woman brought the sacred mountains from the previous world and then secured them to the earth, marking the boundaries of the Navajo homeland. Blanca Peak is the east mountain, Mount Taylor lies to the south, the San Francisco Peaks occupy the western boundary, and Mount Hesperus is to the north. In this series, Begay effected a transformation of the conventional- ized, abstracted forms of sandpainting to the pictorial realm of representational painting. The Four Sacred Mountains and their inner forms figure prominently in Blessingway ceremonies. These inner forms are conceived as beings of human- like form that existed as animating forces within all phenomena of the natural realm at the time of the Navajo emergence into the present world. Begay’s Four Sacred Mountains feature naturalistic represen- tations of these inner forms and beings of the natural realm. The artist combines realistic representations with abstract, conventionalized sandpainting images, such as Thunder (Thunderbird), the Cloud People, and the Rainbow Guardian. Bars at the bottom of each painting, repre- senting the earth to which the mountains have been fastened, are similar in appear- ance and meaning to the black bars that represent the earth in sandpaintings. 8 Begay’s Four Sacred Mountains series bears a clear and direct reference to sandpainting pictorial representations of the Blessingway rite, while his other works bear more oblique references to ceremo- nial practice. This is most commonly seen in the placement of convention- alized representations of the sun and, in some instances, through his use of the Rainbow Guardian that surrounds three sides of ceremonial sandpaintings. In Navajo Weaver and Helper (1967), a protective rainbow band surrounds the space occupied by a Navajo weaver, her loom, her children, and her pets, reflecting the important role that weaving plays in Navajo life and legend. Given to the Navajos by Spider Woman, weaving is a practice that offers the opportunity for performance of proper womanhood in Navajo culture, thus reinforcing the proper roles of men and women as taught in Navajo oral history. Both the mother and daughter wear the customary Navajo hair bun (tsiiyééł), and the weaving bears a repeated hourglass form that echoes and references the hair bun as a signifier of proper Navajo womanhood. 9 8. For more detail, see Wyman, Sacred Mountains, in which Wyman provides a full reading of the iconography of Begay’s Four Sacred Mountains. 9. Jennifer McLerran, ed., Weaving Is Life: Navajo Weavings from the Edwin L. and Ruth E. Kennedy Southwest Native American Collection (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007). 26 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM