On a recent overcast afternoon ahead of forecasted snow, the galleries inside the Museum of Northern Arizona provided a welcome respite. At the entrance to the permanent Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau, a video greeting from representatives from each of the 10 tribes welcomes visitors as they walk through a room alive with history. Beyond this collection, the museum’s newest exhibit beckons.
“Journey to Balance: Migration and healing in three Hopi murals” features images that tell stories of the human journey through chaos to wholeness. Created by Michael Kabotie and Delbridge Honanie in 2001 during their artist residency at the museum, the three large murals remain relevant to humankind’s struggles today.
“What Mike especially was interested in was human universal relationships with the world, within the world, and he was very inspired by Joseph Campbell, who studied myth cross culturally,” said Dr. Kelley Hays-Gilpin, MNA’s curator of archaeology. “That’s been critiqued recently as being fairly European centric, but there still are some themes that Mike was able to recognize from Hopi history. And then Delbridge was just so steeped in Hopi history and Hopi language, Hopi ways of thinking—and those go back thousands of years too—so I think they were just picking up on themes that will always be relevant.”
Kabotie (1942-2009), whose Hopi name Lomawywesa means “Walking in Harmony,” playfully meshed his own Hopi traditions with myth and imagery from around the world. Honanie (1946-2017), or Coochsiwukioma, which means “Falling White Snow,” was a carver, painter and teacher with a witty sense of humor, and was honored as an Arizona Indian Living Treasure in 2006.
Their work on these murals was partly inspired by ancestral murals excavated at Awat'ovi, a segment of which is on display in the Archaeology room before guests arrive at “Journey to Balance.” The two artists cofounded the Artist Hopid collective in 1973, which sought to convey Hopi values to non-Hopi audiences and to serve the Hopi community. They reunited during their museum residency.
“This is like dancing with Del again,” Kabotie said in a 2001 interview with MNA. “This is sort of like a new way of dancing and singing that we’re doing here, and also reciting poetry, because in many ways we are image poets when it comes with what we’re doing with the murals. We both began portraying the beauty of things as well as the shadow side of things.
“It is in the shadow side where the raw and savage and creativity lies, and so it’s a matter of putting things into perspective, embracing your dark side and using its power to create right knowledge and proper knowledge.”
The largest mural of the collection, titled “Journey of the Human Spirit” encompasses six panels and tells the story of the Hopi from when they escape the chaos of the underworld—with the gray-faced shadow side of humanity, powaqa, following—to overcoming Spanish rule in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, witnessing the poisoning of their land by mining, suffering from diseases like diabetes and alcoholism and then finding and disseminating truth as two figures stand on either side of an Apple computer.
“There is our favorite pun that we placed inside the computer—the apple,” the artists explained. “The apple was the tool of the downfall of the twins in the Old Testament—Adam and Eve—and in our story the Apple computer will restore them to the truth.”
The final panel of this mural depicts this return to truth with the horned water serpent Palulukang.
“It's prophesied from the water people that when life again goes into imbalance, Palulukang again will come,” Michael’s son Ed explained in a short documentary within the exhibit. “He's associated withnatural catastrophe, with earthquakes, with floods and so forth. So when he comes, it will be in judgment, he's benevolent, but he's just. After this apocalypse takes place, then a sister and a brother will be chosen… and Palulukang will reinstruct this brother and sister in responsible truths.
“We all have our place of emergence, our time of migration, our times of abuse, our quest for balance, our times of dysfunction and prayerfully, our time of restoration.”
“Pottery Mound: Meeting of the Agricultural and Hunter-Warrior Culture” and “Pottery Mound: Germination,” each made up of three panels, similarly convey the dichotomy of light and dark in life, hopefulness in the midst of strife. “Journey to Balance” will remain on display indefinitely, allowing visitors throughout the pandemic to find solace and hope in its message. Further programming to be announced through the museum’s social media pages will include yoga or meditation classes within the gallery—in person or virtually depending on the state of the pandemic—as well as a musical performance by Ed.
“Art and the humanities are so important,” Hays-Gilpin said. “I think we all saw the young poet at the inauguration and were inspired by that poetry that was only written a week ago, two weeks ago. I hope we are back to appreciating the importance of the arts in our world, and the healing power that art has.”