Victor Masayesva


August 18 - September 25, 2006

Andrew Smith Gallery celebrates Indian Market 2006 with an exhibit titled Drought by Hopi photographer, Victor Masayesva, Jr., with an opening reception for the artist on Friday, August 18 from 5 to 7 p.m. Victor Masayesva, Jr., who lives in Hopi, Arizona, is a distinguished photographer and filmmaker known for blending traditional photographic techniques with digital imaging, drawing, hand coloring and collage. Over the years he has focused on the struggles of Native People to retain their identity, culture and spirituality against enormous obstacles.

Masayesva's earlier bodies of work have explored such issues as reappropriation, government encroachment on sacred sites, historical biases, environmental destruction, and limitations of human perceptions and sensitivity.

Drought deals with the Southwest's ongoing severe drought of 2006 and its impact on Hopi communities who depend solely on rainfall to grow their crops. Although Masayesva does not directly address the subject of global warming, its ramifications cannot but be underscored. Masayesva creates digital collages from an amalgamation of stories, symbols, natural objects and actual places. He brings to this body of work insights from the fields of biology, ecology, humanity, history, and planetary energy, along with concepts and traditions from the Hopi people. Rooted in Hopi cosmology, Masayesva explores a devastating reality meaningful to all people. Drought is Masayesva's fifth show at Andrew Smith Gallery. The exhibit continues through September 26, 2006.

Masayesva will be signing copies of his new book Husk of Time: The Photographs of Victor Masayesva, published by the University of Arizona Press: Tucson, 2006, with an introduction by anthropologist Beverly R. Singer from Santa Clara Pueblo. Husk of Time chronicles thirty years of photographs by Masayesva. It includes essays by him that ponder such subjects as sovereignty and sacredness; the relationship between language, images and text; recent wars in the Middle East, and Hopi experiences and prophecies about famine, drought, disease and death.

In his essays Masayesva draws on his own memories and stories passed down by elders, family and friends. He describes growing up in Hoatvela (Juniper Slope), a place where "you carried wood chips and bark with you when you were very young, branches as you grew stronger. When you reached adolescence you cut and carried wood. When you started your family you hauled piñon and juniper logs from miles away. When you reached old age you carried a wood cane . . ." Masayesva introduces readers to a honakti, (a woman who lost her mind), an uncle who instructed him to nawakna, (pay respect to everything upon waking up), and an apocalyptic figure called Pahana who first purifies the world before ushering in a peaceful age. The photographs track Masayesva's art making from the early 1970s to the present.

The Hopis' survival has always depended on prayers for favorable weather conditions. For over 1,300 years the Anasazi and later the Hopi have inhabited a region of high, arid mesas where rain fall averages less than 10 inches a year. No constant rivers or streams flow through the territory, though a few permanent springs provide the people with drinking water. In times of drought survival becomes marginal. Although there have been droughts before, the drought of 2006 is the worst in memory. No crops survived spring planting this year, a fact that would have meant starvation in the past. In the present it may mean a further alienation from life giving forces.


In "Hisat Sinom (Ancient)" Masayesva evokes the memory of a massive drought that occurred in the southwest in the 1200s when many ancient villages were abandoned. He photographed the Hisat Sinom ruin at Mesa Verde, perched in a massive cliff ledge, contrasting remnants of houses and storage units with a cluster of basket-shaped swallow's nests. Mesa Verde, a place of empty containers, is an image of abandonment.


In early spring 2006 Masayesva photographed a Hopi Buffalo Dancer, a man dressed as a spirit, who dances in winter to bring snow and rain for spring planting. In the photograph the dancer is depicted in colorful turquoise and white paint that contrasts with the warm brown skin of his bare chest. His white skirt is embellished with red and black. His feet are clad in brown deer skin boots that prance over the ground. This magical being dances next to a black and white scene of massive stone walls and a snow covered embankment. The snowflakes emanating from his body evoke snow for the spring planting.

Masayesva photographed a montage made from cat claws, feathers and bird heads emerging from an embryonic form on the sand. The movement of the composition is upward, suggesting something that is trying to grow. Cat claw (tumoala) is a hardy plant with sharp twig-like arms that will hook anything the plant comes in contact with. Its pod can be eaten during droughts. A Hopi view is that it can even hook the clouds and bring down the rain. Masayesva created a maze of cat claws in the sand, noting how the slender stems directed the wind and collected volumes of sand. The physics of this made him wonder if a similar device might be useful if someday the ongoing drought reduces everything to sand.

Masayesva created a still life from a deer head with antlers, a feathered headdress, cat claws, and two live young eagles tied to cradles. The eagles, still too young to fly, were captured by the Hopi before the summer solstice. Masayesva's montage is a juxtaposition of the animal world and the spirit world.

The summer rain dances in Hopi center around kachinas. Kachinas represent the natural world within the Hopi culture. In this photograph feathers and cat claws hover over a green terraced mustard field. Leaves, flowers and feathers intertwine below two dark shapes that can also be viewed as the eyes of the Maiden Kachina. Yellow is a color associated with this powerful being who represents moist fertility in contrast with arid lifelessness represented by a background of gravel and dry mud.

When the Hopi want to find a spring they make offerings of snake skin, the snake being a powerful symbol of water. In this photograph Masayesva weaves together a number of objects associated with water. Cat claws that snag rain from the clouds have been woven into a spindle shaped device resembling the vortex created when water flows down a drain. Through this crawls a snake winding like a river.

The spring of 2005 was an unusually wet year in Hopi. Recalling the quality of that time, Masayesva made a black and white photograph of cat claws atop a wreathe of bird feathers, shells, and flowers resting on sand. To describe the delightful fertility of a wet season he playfully colored certain parts of the photograph. The cat claws, shells and flowers described in festive turquoise, red, orange, green, pink and lavender seem to jump out of the dry, bare ground.

The Hopi word tuoi refers to a stack or stash of corn. Here Masayesva is talking about a powerful spirit named Muyingwa who controls the seed stock. According to an old story, long ago the Hopi village of Oraibi was facing starvation because Muyingwa had withdrawn the seed stock. Hummingbird found it underground where Muyingwa had hidden it and later it was returned to the people. In Masayesva's image Muyingwa lies on top of an arrangement of corn, feathers and cat claws. In this year of drought he is actually pushing the stash into the sand, withdrawing his seed stock underground, reserving it for another time. Perhaps he will return it next year.

Masayesva grew up in Hotevilla, Arizona, on the Hopi Third Mesa. He attended the Horace Mann School in New York City in his teens, and then studied English literature and photography at Princeton University. In 1982 he became director of the Ethnic Heritage Program at Hotevilla, where he worked with the community youth and elders to record Hopi cultural history. Currently Masayesva is working on a film about Hopi runners who make annual pilgrimages to Mexico, a place they connect to water and to their ancestral beginnings.

Liz Kay

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