When multimedia artist Venaya Yazzie lost her grandmother to heart failure just about a year ago, her world was shattered.
“She really just was my support system, and so when I lost her, I felt really lost, like completely lost. I feel like I’m barely getting my senses back,” said Yazzie, who lives in Farmington and is currently a featured artist in an online exhibit called, “Resilient Matriarchy: Indigenous Women’s Art in Community.”
The exhibit is hosted by Open Doors Arts in Action, a project of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Flagstaff, Arizona. Other artists in the exhibit, which is made up of art, poetry and reflections, are: Tacey M. Atsitty, Avis Charley, Lynnette Haozous and Monica Wapaha. “Within our art are narratives of life, of survival, of resilience,” Yazzie wrote in the exhibit’s introduction.
“This project helped me because it asked me to really look at who I was without my grandmother,” Yazzie said. “I do mostly paintings, but I did study photography in Santa Fe at the Indian Arts School, I looked back at my education and kind of tell my story of resilience with photography about my grandmother’s passing.”
For her part of the exhibit, which she titled, “Migration Song, Flooding Narrative: A Photo Journey Trekking Matriarch’s Memory,” Yazzie’s photos reflect childhood memories of spending the summer at Dziłthnaodiłthe, Huerfano, New Mexico. Made up of photos and poetry, Yazzie’s work pays homage to her maternal grandmother, Jane Werito Yazzie, who died at age 89.
“My grandmother raised me. Her oldest daughter was my mother. But my grandmother and her husband raised me from when I was a baby. So really, she was my mother,” she said. “In Navajo, we refer to our mothers, grandmothers as a shimá, and it kind of just incorporates that whole idea of a mother, a mother figure. She was the inspiration for a lot of things I did before she passed, but also – I call her my muse because she inspired me to do what I do, she never pressured me not to be an artist. I think because of her and her female lineage, we’re always creators, we’re always artists because we had weavers in our family, and seamstresses, those sort of art ways were always a part of the family.”
Yazzie, an alumnus of Fort Lewis College, Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Arts, and the University of New Mexico, said she got involved in the exhibit through a friend who lives in Flagstaff. Open Doors is an organization that hosts art shows that are based on community and look at sustainable community and nonprofit work, she said, adding that she took on a sort of “co-curator” role in the show, helping find artists she thought would fit in the exhibit’s theme.
Because of Open Doors’ commitment to community, five regional nonprofits were selected to be showcased that are helping either Indigenous women specifically or Indigenous people in general throughout the Four Corners. Those selected are: Adopt A Native Elder – Navajo; Adopt A Native Elder – Hopi; Changing Woman Initiative; Diné Studies Conference; and Missing & Murdered Diné Relatives.
Part of the exhibit’s mission, Yazzie said, is to create dialogue, something she said she hopes will happen.
“What I hope this show does with all these women artists is show the public (that) ... even during hardship, our Indigenous people are still creating and they’re still trying to maintain a type of normalcy,” she said. “I think for a lot of these artists, they’re just reaching back to their roots of who they are as Indigenous women from their tribes that they’re coming from and saying, ‘Even though this hard stuff’s going on, we’ll still endure and we’ll still continue what we do.’
“I just hope other people will see that and then say, ‘Well, in my own life, how can I continue and keep trying to stay healthy and have my community healthy, have my family healthy?’ And really looking at art as a way of healing, a mechanism.”