See this artwork before the exhibition closes on March 31st, 2011! Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe.
A lot has happened in the world since my last posting on Not Artomatic. There was the usual problem of working too much. But a lot has gone on in the world, too – Egypt, Syria, Libya, Japan. It has felt rather like the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with a new event every two weeks or so. I say that from the perspective of someone who was a high school senior in 1990. Something changed in the world then – I saw it on television, and there was intense emotion on a massive scale, but no real understanding of what might come afterward. My high-schooler imagination was excited, but I lacked the knowledge, the perspective to really understand much of it. Twenty-one years later, I find that hasn’t changed much! I swirled around news sources that didn’t even exist back then, looking for information, understanding, answers. I also swirled around my memories of conversations with artist John Feodorov about his new series of work, titled Emergence. I wanted to write about this series, but kept finding something in the way. First, I told myself it was because I need to be more academic and I need good research on Navajo cosmology and the Emergence concept. I did research, and had trouble coming up with an explanatory, non-Eurocentric (yet possessing academic authority) source. Unlike many religions, Navajo religion does not proselytize.
But the artist’s conversations with me made it clear that this structuring worldview was very important. On a gut-level, I’ve been tying that in with the cascade of events in the Middle East, recent devastating earthquakes, the tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. The Christian paradigm of apocalypse does not seem to help us deal with widespread change, whether that change is natural disaster, environmental disaster, or political collapse. For human cultures to survive, we have to have cultural foundations that help us recover from disaster and create some kind of order from entirely new conditions. I think that’s what appealed to me about looking at Feodorov’s Emergence series.
Any of you who are reading this who are writers (and I’m sure you all are writers, even if you don’t think of yourself that way) are familiar with something we end up calling “writer’s block.” I don’t think it really exists. When my mind ducks away from writing something, there is usually a reason. Often, it is because I still need to think/feel my way through an issue and writing sometimes isn’t the best way to do so. Sometimes, making art helps me figure things out and then I can get back to the writing. Other times, words from another person (in conversation, e-mail, a song, Facebook) help me make a connection I was missing. And then here is something that floors me every time it happens. I occasionally get stalled because I ALREADY WROTE THE WORDS I NEEDED. The text in the section below is from an early blog post I wrote called “What is so important about Native American Art.”
“Indigenous populations have experienced multiple migrations, population losses, and recoveries. The conceptual unification of oral tradition and the production of material culture contextualize this history and provide us with models for survivance that are useful not only to our indigenous communities, but perhaps to the population at large during this current period of change marked by serious […] upheaval.
We still have the stories and songs of when we arrived in our Tlingit homeland, over 10,000 years ago, not only the stories of how we got to where we are now, but the stories of the people who had to sacrifice along the way. Part of our stories have to do with the sacrifices by clan mothers in order to get where we needed to be.
- Larry McNeil
Such stories help us contextualize present issues. Our artforms give us the tools we need to cope with change, to be resilient, to make conscious choices that consider the long term. Thinking seven generations ahead requires imagination! Art is more than a reaction to events in our lives; artistic practice also leads to real-world changes.
In very practical ways, indigenous artistic practices lead to involvement in environmental issues.” All of this has been leading into actually addressing Feodorov’s Emergence, series in reference to the Navajo cultural framework that describes their origins as a people who have passed through a series of worlds or existences, with each new world arising from the out-of-balance destruction of the previous one. The organizing principles, spiritual forces, and sacred terrain are different with each new emergence.
I always think it is important to pay attention to artists’ own statements about their work, as you will know from reading my writing in general. The following is John Feodorov’s exhibition statement, which was prominently placed at the entrance to his exhibition:
In 1979, the largest accidental release of radioactive material in USA history happened in Church Rock in the state of New Mexico. A tailing dam burst, sending eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid pouring toward Arizona into the Rio Puerco River. Today, the Navajo communities still cannot use the water.” *
According to a Sept. 23, 2010 article in Indian Country Today, “The New Mexico Environmental Law Center filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court this month to reverse the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to allow in situ leach (ISL) uranium mining in the Four Corners region of New Mexico. […] The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted Hydro Resources, Inc. a license to mine uranium in Crownpoint and Church Rock.”
According to the Associated Press, 11/17/2010: “Supreme Court justices Monday decided not to review a decision that allows Hydro Resources Inc. to leach-mine uranium at the aquifer used by 15,000 Navajos in the Church Rock and Crownpoint areas.”
The works in this room explore the transformation of environmental tragedy into possible new mythologies. This is the basis of the Navajo creation myth–one world’s destruction is another’s creation. With the acknowledgement by most scientists that our global climate is heating up, and with the recent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, many people admit a sense of helplessness and even resignation. To be honest, I sometimes find myself among them and this ambivalence is reflected within this recent body of work. While watching the continuous live video feed of the BP oil well freely spewing into the Gulf, I couldn’t help but think of the Navajo creation story where animals, insects and gods climbed a magic reed, like the fabled Jack and his beanstalk, from the Third World into our current Fourth World to escape annihilation. I kept thinking of that leaking pipe as another “reed” in which spirits embedded deep within the Earth were now emerging into our world, like medieval demons charging through the mouth of Hell, or red ants marching towards unsuspecting picnickers.
With the Oil well now capped, it is easy for us to fall back into our daily routines. I hope this doesn’t happen. As demonstrated above, environmental pollution and exploitation continues to this day. Since we don’t seem to learn from the past, it might be a good idea for us to start looking around for another magic reed. * (Excerpted from “Pollution of the Navajo Nation Lands” a paper by Kimberly Smith of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, presented August 2007 at the United Nations International Expert Group Meeting On Indigenous Peoples And Protection Of The Environment, which took place in Khabarovsk, Russian Federation. This meeting was hosted by the Government of Khabarovsk, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East (RAIPON) in the Russian Federation.)”
Feodorov’s words (above) take on even more relevance in relationship to the current revisiting of nuclear policy going on worldwide as a result of the containment problems at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. What about the work itself?
Rani Molla wrote a review of the exhibition for the Santa Fe Reporter, which is worth reading. Molla closes with this statement:
“The fifth world—entered through a sooty smokestack and in which we teddy bears are still defined by the items we buy—would already be dismal. Perhaps the point is that there is no fifth world—just this one, and it’s a scary place.”
I was terribly disappointed with that statement. I didn’t think it was all that dismal. I found humor, irony, sarcasm, in many of the pieces, yes. There also seemed to be a cautionary aspect, too. If we don’t shift some core values, we’ll end up placing our power-generating capacity (and the corporations involved) into a position of deity-like power over us. I’m probably a bit too used to Feodorov’s work to look at it with fresh eyes. He’s been using the Teddy Bear as a symbolic element to his work since the beginning of his career as an artist. The open-mouthed profile view of a human head is also repeated element in his 2D work. Sometimes the open mouth represents a scream, desperation, pain. Other times, it represents speech, breath, a connection to the sacred.
Maybe Molla and other reviewers are right – Emergence is about dystopia instead of future potential. I keep asking myself how the work would have to be different in order to present a new mythology to help us feel our way into a Fifth World. What is the middle ground between naïve hopefulness and dystopic vision? Can the video feed, the antenna, the open-mouthed communication, the apotheosis of the stuffed bear, the grinding of candy corn, combine to show us the world we already live in? Is Emergence really about the Fourth World? And can we really leave that world behind us? Can we alter those patterns in the next order of things? Does Feodorov need to show us a Fifth World that is better than the current state? I’m not sure I could set my own skepticism aside for that.
If you have the chance to go see this work – say you’re in Santa Fe at some point during the next two days – take a look at Emergence. See if you can find hope, despair, and a questioning of the “natural order.” I think I did.
 And by television, I mean I saw it on all three networks, with rabbit ear antennas, when we were amazed that the new tv had a digital display of 1-99. All the channels were fuzz once we tuned it beyond channel 13. My family did not get cable television until after I left home.
 The exhibition is at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It closes 3/31/2011. See it right away if you can!
 Larry McNeil, comments from the panel “Migration, Relocation and the Diaspora,” during the Creation – Migration – Change convening, February 2009.
 Wall text by John Feodorov, accompanying the Emergence exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe, NM January 14 – March 31, 2011.
 Rani Molla, “Emergency: Emergence Shows the Environment in Dire Straits,” The Santa Fe Reporter, January 19, 2011. http://sfreporter.com/santafe/print-article-5863-print.html
 I wrote a short essay as part of MoCNA/IAIA’s Vision Project and specifically address the symbolism of the Teddy Bear in popular culture and how Feodorov uses it in his work. This essay is not yet published. I will update this footnote after the publication is available to the public.