First came water, then life. Still, many take the nonrenewable resource for granted on Earth, comfortable enough existing in their modern homes and businesses to not consider how the water flowing from the faucet gets there in the first place. But this out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality has long been detrimental to our ability to survive as time goes on and greed from select groups in power grows.
“You can't ignore the fact that part of the reason the Navajo Nation has been so disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 has been because of water issues,” artist and activist Klee Benally said. “Lack of access to water to maintain hygiene, having to haul water and the legacy of contamination from uranium mining in our water systems impacts our health and makes us even more susceptible to these kinds of viruses.”
Benally, along with eight other artists across Arizona, participated in an immersive boot camp in January of 2019 to learn about and discuss water issues from cultural, scientific and climate perspectives. They were then given the task of taking what they experienced and turning it into something that conveys the urgency presented by climate change. This past September, after six long months of drought, the Coconino Center for the Arts was filled once more with art to present what was created out of this boot camp—Parched: The Art of Water in the Southwest, a meaningful and relevant exhibit for these historic transitory times.
“I think it's really interesting when you come into this exhibition because there's no redundancy,” Julie Comnick, exhibit curator, said ahead of it’s opening. “Each of the artists on their own had different interests, but all of them pertain on some level to either disparities or conflicts, or abundance versus the absence of water, really looking at those contrasts.”
There’s Glory Tacheenie-Campoy’s “Adáádáá nizhónîgo nahóóltá (Yesterday we had a beautiful rain),” which consists of gossamer fabric hanging down like heavy monsoon clouds with several Indigenous words for water screen printed across its lengths. Or Neal Galloway's "Flood Lines," which uses the walls of the gallery to demonstrate inequities of water access, how expensive and time-consuming it is for families to haul water on the Navajo Nation compared to the ease in which water is delivered for industrial, municipal or agricultural use.
In Benally’s “Mą'ii No. 4/The Thief,” the image shifts as viewers walk to either end of the lenticular piece. An image of Navajo Nation water rights attorney Stanley Pollack is seen when viewed from the left while a mą'ii, or coyote, wearing a suit is depicted on the other with the Diné Bizaad words Tó éí ííńá át'é, water is life.
“A lot of Indigenous or Diné folks have viewed Stanley Pollack as somebody who's selling our people short of what we believe are our entitlements to the Little Colorado River water and its usage,” Benally explained. “In our creation history, the mą'ii stole the water babies and it led to great catastrophes so we had to leave that world. It became uninhabitable to humans.”
In denying Indigenous people access to water on their lands, there’s fear that the imbalance of spiritual harmony will lead to more catastrophes in the Southwest that will push people out again.
“I am an unapologetic agitator,” Benally said. “Everything that I do with my art, from music to film to two-dimensional and other mixed media forms, has been focused around conveying a message to activate or challenge and confront folks to either spur them into action or challenge their ideas around certain issues to bring about on social transformation.”
Water has always been a sacred part of Benally’s life, having grown up without running water in his family home on the Navajo Nation, and he’s dedicated much time and energy to activism work surrounding the use of water at places like golf courses and Arizona Snowbowl.
“The Bodies Gone, the Purchases Made,” an installation piece by Flagstaff artist Shawn Skabelund, was also made with the ski and snowboard resort in mind.
“I knew I wanted to create an installation that explored Snowbowl and the use of reclaimed water on the peaks, and I knew going into it that I wanted to use cattail down,” he said.
Where he harvested the cattail down from is key here. Skabelund cut pounds and pounds of cattail heads that he found along the Flagstaff Urban Trail System just east of Lone Tree, which passes alongside the Rio de Flag Wastewater Treatment Plant, collecting the soft down to represent snow inside his water tank. Like the artificial snow at the ski resort, these materials grew from waste.
And, like any art on display in Parched, the installation is open to interpretation by visitors. Fellow artist Delisa Myles followed her own vision to incorporate it into her multimedia performance art piece, “Saurian Memory.”
“In the new beginning Earth is a perfect white sphere, a planet of mute ash, or was it snow? Or perhaps radioactive fallout?” Myles described in her artist statement. “We can’t know for certain, there were no witnesses.”
A looping film projected on the wall adjacent to Skabelund’s installation shows Myles rising from the cattail down before moving on to more otherworldly locations like Butte Creek in the artist’s residence city of Prescott and an animal stock water tank outside of Flagstaff. Filmwork by Amanda Kapp, along with costuming by Anastazia Louise and music by Sound after Silence, conveys an apocalyptic feel.
During the pre-exhibit boot camp, one thing that stood out to Myles was a presentation which showed how some rivers appeared a century ago compared to now.
“It’s just maybe a tenth of what it was then. You think in 100 years how quickly that changed and how, with global warming it’s just exponential change, and [wonder], ‘Are we going to have any rivers left, any free flowing water,’” Myles said. “It just feels like that’s the direction it’s heading in this area, the aquifers being depleted and people not really paying much attention to it, going blindly ahead, building new homes—thousands of new homes here in Prescott. Where’s the water going to come from?”
Other artists found new cultural perspectives in working through their creative process. Tucson-based artist Kathleen Velo has worked with light and water for many years throughout her artistic career. Her photograms are created by submerging light sensitive paper in water and exposing it to a flash of light. Minerals and impurities in the water create unique swirls and textures in the final result. To gather water from the Hopi Reservation, Velo worked with Black Mesa Trust’s Ernest Taho, a Hopi elder with the Rabbit/Tobacco clan who Benally had invited to the boot camp to discuss arsenic pollution in Hopi waters.
“In the past when I’ve worked on water sources I go into the water at night to make the photograms but on the reservation that was just not possible so Ernest helped me collect water from people’s homes, their filtered tap water and also some unfiltered water and [fresh water] from a spring,” Velo said. “We were extremely grateful that we were able to work with Ernest to collect water from the spring.”
Her entry in the exhibit, “Water Flow: Hopi Reservation,” pairs the photograms with a small bottle of the same water used to create each image.
“It was really a gift, a cultural gift that Ernest shared with me to let me know, ‘This is our feeling toward water and it is sacred,’” Velo said. “It should be sacred to everybody.”
Parched carries on the Flagstaff Arts Council’s tradition of exploring expansive topics through art, as demonstrated with the impactful 2015 Fires of Change exhibit, in which curator Comnick participated as an artist and Skabelund curated. Viewing ideas through an artistic lens has the power to inspire more so than cut and dry scientific studies or articles. And by drawing more people in than might be willing to listen to a lecture, art can also serve as a platform for more causes.
“We have the power to take action and address these issues and be part of the process to decide who has water because that's really what's happening right now. Politicians, governmental agencies are determining our future right now, whether we like it or not,” Benally said. “We should actively participate in any way that we can to help to shape that future because we have no future without water.
“I'm grateful that the arts council is hosting this exhibit and has found a way to safely open this space and provide virtual elements to further this discussion because it's not just something that we hang on a wall and look at it and move on with our lives,” he continued. “We have to actually think deeply and figure out how then to address these very critical issues right now.”