When you walk into “Standing Outside, Sitting Outside,” a spacious feeling of serenity fills the air. A large circle of sand rests on the floor encompassing other circles. Stones and shells mark the quadrants. These and a tiny mound at the center symbolize the area and the four sacred mountains of the Diné people, also known as the Navajo.
“Standing Outside, Sitting Outside” opened the gallery season this week at Fort Lewis College and represents a bold beginning.
With its high ceiling and natural light, the gallery may be small, but its formal design serves this installation well. The central space is flanked by two smaller alcoves – just right for a grand statement and contrasting areas.
On entering, there is something about the symmetry and the natural materials that immediately speaks of nature eternal. Six earth-stained cotton cloths hang on the western wall above the sand painting. They represent the four major sacred mountains and two minor ones. Pale and soft, the cloths evoke Tibetan prayer flags but are arranged in a simple six-part geometric grid.
All is in harmony; drink it in. Let the beauty of the gallery speak to you. Then enter the side galleries with care. The tone changes dramatically, and that’s the point. As a whole, the exhibit is full of big contrasts: harmony and chaos, serenity and discontent, the perennial conflict between the ideal and reality.
Credit the Arroyo Arte Collective for spending up to three years thinking and dreaming about this installation. The collective consists of a trio of Diné artist-poets: Esther Belin, Venaya Yazzie and Gloria Emerson.
Contemporary installations are hybrids and need to be experienced. While there are many individual paintings and sculptures in the exhibition, it’s the experience of the whole that matters. That’s the reason for the strong suggestion to let the beauty of the main gallery make its impression before you venture left or right.
The south alcove holds many puzzles, a schematic diagram of the Diné Nation, an explanation of sacred colors, a time line that connects to a dozen collages about Yazzie’s ancestry and a link back to the main chamber. You know you’re in a different kind of symbolic environment.
In the north alcove, a more powerful disjunction takes place. Here, the checkerboard symbolism of the Navajo Nation is clear and angry.
The long history of dislocation is embedded in various telling objects. What looks like a real checkerboard on close inspection turns into a game of gas and oil wells, various institutional entities and personalities. Nearby, seven human forms float about in a corner. Headless and disembodied, the figures are constructed of government documents wrapped in plastic. Traces of sand seep into this chaos from the central gallery, and you know everything is intentional and everything has meaning.
Two large figures with applied texts have been painted directly onto the walls. Embedded into these figures, more checkerboard patterns fill folds and negative spaces while handwritten texts tell stories. More connections are made to a past marked by political oppression from various governmental institutions, including the tribe itself.
As serene as it looks at first glance, the installation is meant to stir a reaction and spark conversation about a history all too little understood.
It’s likely there is a primary audience, the people of the Diné. The title alone refers to a split within the Diné about those who live at the edges of the homeland and those who are closer to the center.
The Arroyo Arte Collective has taken a stand about internal dissension as well as external conflicts. The various interpretations of a fractured homeland may be symbolic, I was told by two of the three artists on opening day, but the exhibit is the result of deeply held convictions and a willingness to address taboo subjects. The use of a sand painting as an entry point is one seemingly benign example to the uninitiated.
What an extraordinary way to bring historic and personal issues to light – through creativity and collective endeavor. Kudos to the women of The Arroyo Arte Collective and to Fort Lewis for providing a platform for the discussion. All three artist-poets will be at today’s opening reception.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at email@example.com.