Grasp the handle of the shovel anchored to the ground. Then put on the yellow and black gas mask that has been converted into a virtual reality headset. Slip on the headphones, look into the goggles, and prepare to be swept from the art-filled gallery of the Coconino Center for the Arts to the windy, shrub-dotted desert of the Navajo Nation.

In a several-minute immersive video, Flagstaff artist Klee Benally puts the viewer next to an abandoned uranium mine as Benally, wearing a white hazmat suit, uses a geiger counter to test the area for radioactivity. Seconds later, the scene flashes to a woman walking near the ruins of her childhood home as she explains how she and her family had to leave due to concerns about contamination from a nearby uranium mill.

As it progresses, the video travels to another abandoned uranium mine ringed by homes, to the rim of the Grand Canyon and then to a meadow in Buffalo Park where Havasupai tribal member James Uqualla is speaking about the need to protect the Grand Canyon area held sacred by many.

The immersive video was a new, more intimate way to put viewers at the center of a story about the impacts of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, Benally said.

Beginning Aug. 15, the public will be able to experience Benally's video as well as 20 other works of art that explore the impact of uranium mining on Navajo lands and people as part of "Hope and Trauma in a Poisoned Land," the newest exhibit at the Coconino Center for the Arts. 

Both Native American and non-native artists from around the region created pieces for the exhibit, which runs through Oct. 28.

A wide variety

The featured work includes “just about everything under the sun,” said John Tannous, the executive director of the Flagstaff Arts Council, which manages the Coconino Center for the Arts. That includes sculptures, jewelry, murals, textiles, poetry, paintings, photographs and large scale installations.

The pieces shine a light on 30 years of uranium exploitation and radioactive contamination on the Navajo reservation that up to now have largely been met with silence, Tannous said, echoing the formal statement of the exhibit’s co-curator, Shawn Skabelund.

“It’s the artist’s job to bring light to that. It has been for centuries upon centuries,” Tannous said. “We tend to look at history through the eyes of artists.”

In addition to displaying artwork, the Coconino Center for the Arts will host several talks related to the exhibit, including one by a participating artist and two by experts that will focus on the environmental, biological, cultural and psychological impacts of uranium mines. Those will take place in September and October.

Like it did for the 2015 exhibit “Fires of Change” the Flagstaff Arts Council brought all participating artists on a four-day, learning-intensive trip last fall that formed the basis for their work. The group traveled to Cameron and Flagstaff, where the artists heard from community members, scientists, healthcare professionals, mental health professionals and other experts about the impacts of uranium mining.

“With uranium mining, we wanted our artists to be trained and understand the full scope of the impact rather than creating work based on a partial bit of information or things they picked up here and there,” Tannous said.

Familiar faces

For some artists, the trip was a chance to travel home.

Painter Jerrel Singer grew up in Tuba City and his family has a ranch nearby. Singer said he participated out of a desire to help tell the story of what happened right in his backyard.

“When I was growing up I remember a lot of my aunts and uncles were getting sick and we didn't know why,” Singer said.

Looking back, he now knows that the sheep and cattle would drink contaminated water that would pool in water holes and abandoned uranium mines, and then his family would eat those animals.

“It was going into our bodies, too,” he said.

The vibrant painting Singer produced for the "Hope and Trauma" exhibit portrays a pink and purple monsoon cloud towering over rolling blue hills near Cameron. A two-lane highway leads into the rainstorm and beside the road a single sign displays the yellow and black nuclear hazard symbol.

The hope, Singer said, is to bring awareness to the uranium ore that could be trucked through Flagstaff as the Canyon Mine south of the Grand Canyon ramps up operations.

The painting, he said, is called “A Coming Warning.”

Not far from Singer’s painting in the exhibit hall, Edie Dillon’s large-scale installation towers above the rest. The installation is a lace-covered structure that looks like a mushroom cloud. Scattered across it are thousands of dust masks that Dillon sent out to people across the country, including students, members of womens groups and artist groups. She asked people to paint the masks and they came back decorated with turtles, people holding hands, butterflies, poetry and more.

The masks indicate the complete lack of protection that uranium mine workers were given, Dillon said.

“Dust masks were the smallest, most ineffective thing (workers) could have had and they weren't even given those,” she said.

Dillon said she came into the project knowing about nuclear proliferation, but traveling to the Navajo Nation, hearing stories of Navajo people affected by the mining and seeing the proximity of those mines to water sources like the Little Colorado River was shocking and heartbreaking, she said.

“It was like a punch in the gut,” Dillon said.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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