First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 29

In Gerald Nailor’s paintings, repre- sentations of the four sacred plants—corn, beans, squash, and tobacco—appear in the same conventionalized forms as in sandpaintings. Rainbow Guardians, corn stalks, and the sun and moon often appear in conventionalized form, and scenes from particular ceremonies—most notably the Blessingway—are often points of reference. The Yellow Corn Maiden’s Prayer to the Dawn (1948), which portrays a scene from the summer solstice Blessingway, and Learning to Take Pollen from Corn (1946) include such references. The Yellow Corn Maiden’s Prayer to the Dawn shows a cornstalk superimposed over the form of Yellow Corn Woman, who appears in the midst of transfor- mation, hovering between vegetable and human form. 10 The cornstalk, which appears in the same stylized form as in sandpainting with a three-pronged tassel at the top, bears four ears of corn that reference the four successive Navajo worlds. A rainbow guardian surrounds Yellow Corn Maiden and she is flanked by conventionalized representations of squash plants. In Learning to Take Pollen from Corn a woman instructs a young girl in the practice of gathering the corn pollen that plays a central role in many Navajo rites. The same conventionalized representations of cornstalks common to sandpainting designs that appear in many of Nailor’s works occupy the painting’s left side, and an image of the Hunchback God, a harvest god who carries the seeds of all the world’s vegetation in a pouch on his back and figures prominently in the Nightway ceremony, arches above the woman and child. These elements in Begay’s and Nailor’s works are not simply aimed to appeal to potential buyers. In fact, Begay is known to have claimed that collectors found works with sandpainting imagery in them less desirable. Inclusion of such elements in both Begay’s and Nailor’s works was a testament to the artists’ assimilation of core beliefs and principles of Navajo philosophy and lifeways. The form and content of their works signify the artists’ desires to convey their dedi- cation to a life lived in conformance with Navajo principles and beliefs and confirm their wish to share a particular worldview with those who are willing to closely examine their art. Far from formulaic, their work is a creative adaptation of conventionalized forms of representation deriving from sandpainting ceremonial practice that demonstrates a deep under- standing of a complex and nuanced Navajo belief system. In their paintings, Begay and Nailor show how ceremonial sandpainting is a constitutive element of a Navajo world animated by powerful forces and regulated by codes of conduct neces- sary to keep that world vital, healthy, and supportive of myriad forms of life and being. Both artists make frequent and repeated visual reference to beings that play central roles in the narratives represented in ceremonial sandpainting. The Creation Story and the lessons it teaches play central roles in their works, evidencing their deep and protracted engagement with it. Their works are testament to the central role the Creation Story plays in Navajo life and belief, and their art stands as refutation to those who have dismissed Studio Style painting as formulaic and derivative. 10. Museum of Northern Arizona Long-Term Exhibition Plan, Consultation with Navajo Cultural Specialists from Navajo Nation Traditional Culture Program and Navajo Nation Museum, Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff, Arizona, March 31 to April 2, 2010. SPRING 2019 | 27