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Indigenous Narratives in Motion: Steven J. Yazzie’s Artistic Exploration at Amangiri

Portrait of artist Steven J. Yazzie
Artist Steven J. Yazzie

The Heard Museum and Amangiri have teamed up for a pop-up art exhibition, “Substance of Stars: Meditations and Explorations,” which will be hosted through June 30 on the 900-acre luxury resort property just north of the Arizona border in Utah. The collection—which is a companion to a main exhibition at the Heard in Phoenix—is by Diné (Navajo) filmmaker and artist Steven J. Yazzie and will showcase the creation stories and sky knowledge of four Indigenous communities. Yazzie grew up in nearby Page, Arizona, which influenced much of his work. “I’m really happy to be a part of the collaboration,” Yazzie says. “With any audience, having the opportunity to share work about Native land can always bring value to that experience, whether at a resort, at a museum or in a community project.” We caught up with Yazzie from his Denver studio to talk about these works, the story behind them, and what he’s working on next.

Read more about Amangiri’s iconic architecture here.>>

Q&A: Artist Steven J. Yazzie on Blending Tradition and Technology

“Throwing Stars Over Monsters” by Steven J. Yazzie

Tell us about the works that you will have on display at Amangiri.

They’re essentially three images and a video. I have three archival pigment prints: “Throwing Stars Over Monsters,” “Canyon” and “Painted.” And then I have one video, one single channel video called “Canyon,” in Navajo it’s called “bikooh.” The “Canyon” piece I created as a diptych for Amangiri.

What impact do you hope your work will have on guests?

They are an extension, or a companion series, to the “Substance of Stars” exhibit at the Heard Museum. The Amangiri/Heard Museum partnership is really important. I’m happy to be a part of the collaboration. Having the opportunity to share work about Native land can always bring value to that experience, whether at a resort, at a museum or in a community project.

I’m excited about being able to share works about Navajo land and indigenous lands and giving people the opportunity to consider the stories and histories attached to these lands and the lands that are very close to the Amangiri location.

What does it mean to have these works on display near places that inspired them?

I grew up in Page, which is nearby. I lived in Page from elementary school to my first year of high school, so I’m very familiar with that area.

“Throwing Stars Over Monsters” is an image of Shiprock (New Mexico). It’s an area of land that I’m very familiar with that I would travel through with my family growing up.

The title is referring to how the stars and the Milky Way and the solar system were formed. In Navajo stories and mythology, the gods were putting stars in the sky one by one. Coyote was watching from the side somewhere and was bored at how long it was taking, so he grabbed the bag of stars and threw it into the sky. The monster is the “monster bird”—which is what this rock formation is referred to. It’s this “monster bird” that brought Navajos to this location, but there are variations of these stories. The idea of chaos creating beauty or chaos creating order the Coyote brought is what’s important to that piece for me.

“Canyon” references the slot canyons that are in that area. I’m very fortunate that I was creating work in that same region, so it ties in well with the visitor experience at Amangiri.

You have said editing video can be similar to moving paint on a canvas. How do you approach digital arts compared to more tactile arts such as painting?

I think most artwork is problem-solving in a lot of ways. You’re making mistakes and trying to figure out fixes.

Whether I’m painting or editing, there is a feeling I’m trying to pull from the work that I can’t pinpoint unless I’m going through the process of making mistakes and then finding the solutions. Editing is a lot like painting in that regard, it’s just a different set of tools, but the thought process is very similar.

“Canyon” by Steven J. Yazzie

What do you find impactful about video compared to other art forms?

I’ve been thinking about our perception of experiencing land, when you walk through the landscape and you have a 360-degree view of it.

The movement through space also shifts our relationship to forms, and this is what I’m thinking about when I’m creating a video. One thing that I think might be beautiful from one view dramatically changes just by shifting or moving through the land.

I think the landscape is inherently political or politicized, and the land that I’m particularly looking at definitely is because it’s reservation land, and it’s also Indigenous land, but it carries a lot of weight.

The ways that I think about painting and I think about video, I’m not so much looking for something beautiful. I’m looking for something that evokes the feeling of otherness.

Video lends itself to that—the ability to bring the viewer into multiple perspectives of a place. Painting has a different experiential quality to it, too. It’s static, but there is also movement in it. With video, there’s an immediacy about it. It documents moments in time very specifically. And it’s very approachable; we’re all so used to seeing it. It’s a very democratized medium.

“Painted” by Steven J. Yazzie

What’s your process?

For video, I’m often thinking about a specific location that I want to investigate, explore and see or experience in a way that I may not normally. It involves hiking or traveling and finding a unique vantage point that not everybody may see or shoot from.

I reference or read about the locations at different points in history and also think about places that have a significant place in my memory.

My process is thinking about these historical moments, going out and traveling to and being in the landscape and meditating on these things.

What is it about land and place that drives your work?

All our songs, all our stories, the conflicts, the sustenance, everything comes from the land and everything that has given us this life. It’s important to always remind ourselves of this.

Connecting to land, especially with changes in the environment, it’s more important for me as an artist to make sure that’s always a constant for me to reference the land. I’m always drawn to it.

I mentioned politicization. There’s a history that is important for us to share and touch on, whether It’s something that’s beautiful or a reminder of where we come from and how sacred these stories and ideas are—they are important for our survival.

What are you working on next?

Two projects. One is an ongoing project that I have called Gold King & Associates. We partnered with Native and non-Native contributors, whether they’re writers, artists, poets, musicians or everyday folks who want to share 60 seconds of something. I have signs in and around Denver, and I’m going to have one in Marfa, Texas, and Park City, Utah. I’m calling them “poetic disturbance,” and they are directed toward developers and people interested in land ownership. They just stop people; they give them a moment to think about land and place. If you call the number on the sign, you’ll hear something new every few weeks.

I’m also working on a summer exhibition at Gerald Peters Contemporary in Santa Fe. I’ve been building off of the “Substance of Stars” work and I’m creating more digital prints and large-scale paintings; new video installations; and potentially some drawings. That’s will be in early August and it will run through October.


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