Art isn’t just portrayed on a canvas or through sculpture. It is music, dance, poetry. All too often we think of art as something that belongs in a museum. But for Landis Bahe and Duane Koyawena, it is so much more than that. Art is a way to bring together the past and the present while also bridging gaps between cultures.
“Everyone has their own artistic abilities,” Bahe says. “It’s a good platform for that communication to happen, for all of us to bond, to become stronger as far as promoting ourselves, promoting one another, working together to make everyone else better as well as ourselves.”
Keeping this in mind, Bahe and Koyawena came up with a new idea for an art show, one that is meant to bring Flagstaff together and show a new kind of Native art. On June 30, these two artists will host an art show at Tat-Fu Tattoo showcasing work from Native artists across the Southwest. The medium: skateboard decks.
“You don’t really see a lot of skateboards having fine art on them,” Bahe says. “Skateboards that probably won’t be ridden but also just hung up on the wall. It’s a rarity. It’s something different than what’s in Flagstaff. We see the different cultural events—and praise to them for doing those—and we see the art events that happen. But very rarely do we see skateboards.”
One path, together
Both Bahe, who is Navajo, and Koyawena, who is Hopi, are deeply and happily entrenched in Flagstaff. Bahe is an artist at Tat-Fu Tattoo, and Koyawena works at Flagstaff Medical Center as a behavioral health tech. While they have different careers and specialize in different art forms, it was the common bond of painting that brought them together.
Before they made their first endeavors toward putting together an art show, Bahe and Koyawena were just friends who enjoyed bouncing ideas off of each other. One of Bahe’s paintings, The Path, depicts traditional Navajo figures moving toward a new horizon. He believes that it is a metaphor for the cooperation between the two artists, who came up with the idea for the show while painting together.
The event is a project of significant personal interest and belief for Bahe and Koyawena; however, it is not one that comes from altruistic motivations. Instead, they wanted to give new and established artists an opportunity to push themselves in new directions, to challenge themselves. The fact that they come from two different tribes is also important to them, as it was a major inspiration for the event.
“It’s awesome that a Navajo dude and a Hopi dude can put their minds and their creative bodies together over just painting with one another,” Bahe says, with a belief that it is this theme of unification that gives the idea power. “Just me alone, I always try to bring people together, no matter who they are. The range of people that I tattoo and listening to them, I get the idea that everyone is pretty much a good person. We have these divisions of lines within us in society. It divides us. And with this event, we can bring all types of different people [together].”
The choice of the skateboard was intentional not only because of the unique nature of the medium, but also because of the ability that it gives artists to bring together the past and the present.
“The skateboard kind of represents the contemporary, but the images on the skateboard derive from more of an old-school cultural background,” Bahe says. “It’s almost like historical teachings and historical images presented in a contemporary form.”
Both artists are self-taught. Both see their art as a chance to show that their culture is alive, present and vibrant.
“To me, I would say that in today’s society, I kind of bring in the fact that, as an artist, utilizing different canvases—whether it’s shoes, whether it’s skateboards or doing big murals on brick walls, those kind of things—I think, for me, being able to work on things is kind of showing that diversity of where I can fan out,” Koyawena says. “Primarily, as far as the art, I would say that kids where I come from, on the Hopi Reservation, do a lot of artwork as kids—a lot of the spiritual deities that we have as kids and even myself, whether its drawing your favorite one or the prettiest one.”
Traditions in transition
The artwork that will be displayed at the show will reflect how their cultures are taking the old and making it new once again. The images painted on the skateboards take traditional symbols and deities and transpose them in modern ways. Bahe and Koyawena specialize in this. As a tattoo artist, Bahe has made it a goal of his to use the teachings of his culture to give his art power. Similarly, Koyawena uses images from Hopi culture across a variety of media, including canvas shoes and snapback hats.
Their belief that Native art is continually evolving was key to the decision to create an art show.
“There’s this kind of undertone happening with Native American art and it’s a very transitional period for us as artists [and] as Native people because we’re definitely in a position where it’s kind of pivotal that we know a lot about our culture and we experience those things,” Bahe says. “Now, our grandparents, two generations before me, three generations, they lived it every single day, so their terms of art and the way of living are very different from the way I live and the way that my children will live and how my grandchildren will live. What I see a lot is traditional images and teachings—ways of life—being transferred in a contemporary way. And what better way to do that than skateboards, because they didn’t have skateboards back in those days.”
Bahe sees the show, however, as more than a way to display Native art in a different medium. It is, he believes, an opportunity to bring people together.
“A lot of shows are for specific tribes that are out there. With him [Koyawena] and I coming together, we want to try to set an example. Different types of artwork, two different cultures coming together over the very common factor of art, where everyone can relate, no matter who it is or what culture, no matter what ethnicity, background, gender, age,” Bahe says. “Art, to me, it crosses all those lines. It really brings people together. I feel like I’m at the stage with my career where I can invite people here to the shop and have the skateboards be displayed in a beautiful setting, not only inside of the shop but also in Flagstaff.”
As established artists, Bahe and Koyawena also believe they are in a perfect position to make a difference. By reaching out to artists from a variety of tribes, locations and genders, they hope to shine a light on a new generation that is hungry to forge their own path.
“Even giving artists that are somewhat starting out, not recognized yet, we see the spark in some of these younger guys’ art,” Koyawena says. “They’re kind of kicking stuff out, but it’s not getting that attention yet.”
The focus on diverse artists and their convergence in Flagstaff was vital to the process behind the creation of the event.
“We’re bringing a group of artists here, to Flagstaff, which is a pretty spiritual place because of the San Francisco Peaks,” Bahe explains. “We’re bringing Navajo, Hopi, some Pueblo tribes. We’re bringing a guy from Guatemala. There’s people that are coming from New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, of course, [and] Nevada. A lot of the southwestern United States. So it’s not like we’re just getting them from down the street. These people are putting a lot of effort in traveling. They’re coming from all over. They’re coming from different ethnicities, different backgrounds, different tribes. And that’s important. It’s really important.”
Both Bahe and Koyawena are emphatic in their belief that it is vital to Flagstaff culture and to the world of Native art that people realize they are not stuck in the past. They have a healthy respect for the generations that preceded them, but they also want to move forward and continue to evolve as artists. Part of that, they believe, comes from the fact that Native artists are in a unique position today.
“It’s different to be a Native American and to be an artist. Those things don’t mesh as well,” Bahe says. “A lot of those images, when they were created and when we view those things, they weren’t up for sale, so to say. They weren’t to be marketed or to be distributed. But there were intentions of preserving historical images in our culture’s teachings. There’s a point where people are willing to pay pretty big money for those types of images and sometimes creating something, it can almost be borderline going against some of those things a lot of people have their own opinions about. The very, very deep core of myself, and I would say I speak for Duane too, is that we’re there to create and sometimes we’re pushing the envelope a lot more than what was done 20 years ago, 50 years ago.”
None of this is to say that Bahe and Koyawena don’t respect the traditions of their cultures. To the contrary, they want to keep them alive in a drastically changing world.
“There’s a lot of old ways in both of our cultures that are kind of dying out,” Bahe says. “Number one is the language and number two is the everyday life that happens. We know about them. We know the dos and don’ts and we know how what was done before, where they said not to do this and they said you’re supposed to do this, and a lot of those practices are kind of diminishing.”
Bahe and Koyawena see the skateboard show as not just a one-off; instead, they hope to make it an annual event in Flagstaff that brings people together. The community building aspect is key to both Bahe and Koyawena.
“We all have such a range and knowing these people and associating with them helps me think outside of the box,” Koyawena says. “When I see something that Landis does, I think I grow a little bit more. Or hearing his technique of how he does something. It just broadens, for me, my scope.”
Ultimately, Bahe and Koyawena are grateful for the opportunity to work together and actualize their dreams. Both men have struggled with demons in one form or another. However, they see the event as a way to teach a new generation how to move forward while also being respectful of their roots.
“We want to give you that gift by being open and being transparent ourselves and saying, ‘Welcome,’” Bahe says.
By using unique canvases and unique methods of presenting their cultures, Landis Bahe and Duane Koyawena are giving Flagstaff a unique opportunity—to see the past and the present not as two separate worlds, but as a continuum in which cultures can come together in positive coexistence.
Join Landis Bahe and Duane Koyawena during the inaugural Art Show: Custom Hand-Painted Skateboards on Fri, June 30 at Tat-Fu Tattoo, 427 S. San Francisco. Entrance is free and the show runs from 5–9 p.m. For more info, visit the event page on Facebook.