Art of anxiety and yellow powder.
The sense of discomfort in the room feels like mist on the skin. A Geiger counter hisses static of the low-level presence of radioactivity. An octagonal shape supported on top with raw wooden beams, its walls adorned with images, reminds viewers of the images of a hogan. A mushroom cloud made of dust masks rises along a wall. People quietly stroll through the space, their attention focused on black and white images of the past and on vivid color of the present.
Panels accompany the art. One panel states:
“Uranium … a mineral lying in the crust of the earth—just a special kind of dirt, really—one of the most violent forces under human control. A paradox there: from dust to dust. The earth came seeded with the means of its own destruction, a geological Original Sin.”
— Tom Zoellner, Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Reshaped the World
The exhibit, Hope + Trauma in a Poisoned Land: The Impact of Uranium Mining on Navajo Lands and People, is on display at the Coconino Center of the Arts through Oct. 28. The exhibit features 28 pieces from 20 artists and groups and features several media, including painting, textiles, film, virtual reality film, poetry, performance art, photography, installation art and sculpture.
The Flagstaff Arts Council states that the exhibit “explores the impact of uranium mining on Navajo lands and people.”
Some of the biggest exhibitions through the FAC have been the result of synchronicity and having heard from more than a single voice in the community, says John Tannous, Executive Director of the Flagstaff Arts Council.
For the Hope + Trauma exhibit, several artists, including Shawn Skabelund, Ann Collier, Davonna Blackhorse and Malcolm Benally among others, suggested an exhibit that centered on the issue of uranium mining in northern Arizona. The idea was presented to the council, whose members review projects based on artistic excellence, interest to the community, and relevance overall.
“The idea started coalescing with them,” Tannous says. “And because of the sensitive nature of the topic, we decided to take it on as one of our major exhibitions.”
The FAC major exhibitions happen approximately every two years, Tannous says. Former major exhibitions include the Beyond the Border (2012) and the Fires of Change (2015) exhibitions at the Coconino Center for the Arts. The projects, which focus on topics that have anxiety associated with them (fire, border issues, uranium) start with a process to get the participating artists “fully informed” about the central theme, or issue, of the project.
In the case of Hope + Trauma, the artists spent four days undergoing lectures, panel discussions, field trips to visit abandoned uranium mines, and other activities to give them a sense of the issue from a variety of perspectives—environmental, scientific, psychological, physical/medical, emotional and cultural.
As an example, Navajo culture is built on livestock. The artists visited abandoned uranium mines in Cameron on the Navajo Nation, watched a sheep slaughter, and came to the realization that the sheep drink and eat off the same land that uranium comes from. According to info presented in the exhibit, over a 12-year period after uranium was discovered there in the 1950s, more than a million pounds of uranium was mined around Cameron. The mining left depressions that filled with water. People and livestock drank the contaminated water.
The resulting exhibit is meant to create a space to address an issue relevant to the northern Arizona communities, and the impact that issue has, so people can see the issue through the artists’ eyes, Tannous says. Art is a powerful way to address that impact and to assist the community in getting more of an understanding of the depth of that impact.
“The idea is for us to give them the information, and then let them be the artists who they are,” Tannous says. “As an arts council, our job is to give artists space to reflect their perspective.”
And the goal, in the end, is to help viewers come away from the exhibit having learned something about an issue. Tannous adds that the FAC chose not to have a “call to action” associated with the exhibit so that viewers can come to their own decision on whether or not they would act on the info in the exhibit.
Hope + Trauma is focused on land and people only, Tannous says. Therefore, there are no perspectives by mine owners, or politicians. The exhibit is not meant to engage in a debate on the issue; it is only to allow the explanation of the devastation uranium mining has wrought.
A viewing room near the main exhibit shows two films that run continuously throughout the day. The first film documents the process the artists went through to prepare for the project. The second features the “atomic culture” of the 1950s and ’60s, showing footage about uranium meant to educate people, but, in reality, was propaganda filled with assurances that have long since been debunked.
The artists featured in the exhibit are: Jeremy Singer, Venaya Yazzie, Helen Padilla, Anna Tsouhlarakis, Kim Hahn, Jane Lilly Benale, Esther Belin, Klee Benally, Mark Neumann, Elisa Rosales Juega, Rebekah Nordstrom, Elbert Dayzie, Jocelyne Champagne Shiner, Jerrel Singer, Edie Dillon, Frederica Hall, Chip Thomas, Anne Collier, Malcolm Benally, Amy Martin, Pash Galbavy, Milton Tso, Debra Edgerton, and the Death Convention Singers. The exhibit is curated by Shawn Skabelund and Travis Iurato. The project director was Ann Collier.
“It’s important that we have artists from all walks,” Tannous says. “It’s an issue for all of us. If you live in northern Arizona, uranium is a very scary, very real prospect. This is something that people don’t even realize how close it is.”
A guest book at the entrance to the exhibit includes comments from people who have visited the exhibit:
- “This is one of the most powerful art exhibits I have been privileged to witness. Thank you.”
- “I have no words. How truly I wish every school could see this project. So sad.”
- “Water is life. Great show. Bring it to D.C.”
The “curatorial statement” of the exhibit features a quote from the Navajo Origin Story of the Fourth World:
“And the Dineh emerged into the present world with a choice between two yellow powders—one the yellow dust of rocks and the other of corn pollen—and they chose the latter. The Gods nodded in assent and instructed the Dineh to leave the yellow dust in the ground, for if it was ever extracted, evil would fill the land.”
Hope + Trauma is funded in part through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional funding comes from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Hotel Monte Vista, the Babbitt Brothers Foundation, Freeman Law/Nature Exposed Photography, North Country Healthcare, Arizona Humanities, the Jenny McKenzie Fund, Northern Arizona University, the City of Flagstaff and Coconino County.
Hope + Trauma Events:
To explore the various aspects of the complex issue of uranium mining in northern Arizona, the Flagstaff Arts Council will feature several events at the Coconino Center for the Arts to provide education and insight:
- Sihasin in concert with 2 ½ Minutes to Midnight performance: Sept. 8, 7:30 p.m.
- Public reception: Sept. 23, 6–8 p.m.
- The Environmental and Biological Impact of Uranium Mining: Sept. 26, 5:30 p.m.
- SCI Talks: Sept. 29, 6 p.m.
- I-Witness: Artist Talk with Pash Galbavy, Oct. 17, 6:30 p.m.
- Cultural and Psychological Impact of Uranium Mining, Oct. 24, 6:30 p.m.
All events take place at the Coconino Center for the Arts, 2300 N. Fort Valley Road. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.–5 p.m., Tue–Sat. Admission for the exhibit is free. For more info, call 779-2300 or visit www.flagartscouncil.org.