Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sheep is Life

photo by Chip Thomas
JR might have won the TED prize this week for his inspirational work from Kibera to Shanghai, but in Northern Arizona another "photograffeur" is working his craft in the community he's shared and served for 23 years.  Chip Thomas' path to wheatpasting the Navajo Nation was long and circuitous, passing through John Coltrane's front yard with stops in the street art havens of New York and Brazil.  The journey embodies the philosophy of "tropicalismo", a concept that finds expression on the bricks of abandoned trading posts, the wood planks of rodeo arenas, in videos of the installations, and more recently in the galleries and urban walls of Albuquerque and North Carolina.  I had the great privilege a few weeks ago to help Chip install his Albuquerque show and it was like studying with a guru, with constant metaphorical lessons in impermanence, connection, commitment, observation, healing and beauty.

When asked about his inspiration, Chip, a family practice doc, says it's about the "creation of beauty at the service of healing--and then letting go."  He tells the story of an infant patient of his, maybe 18 months old, who had a febrile seizure.  The medical work-up was negative and the family was reassured that the child was in good health and would be fine.  They wanted to do everything they could to ensure their daughter's continued health, so they took her to a traditional healer and invited Chip to attend the ceremony.  The healer worked all night to create an intricate and beautiful multi-colored sand painting and the next morning, the child was brought into the hogan, disrobed except for her diaper, and then placed squarely in the middle of the beautiful work of art.  She enjoyed the painting thoroughly, as any toddler would, grasping at the mounds of bright colors and smearing them on her skin and over the floor.  Was she destroying the art, or becoming part of it?  Beauty at the service of healing.

photo by Chip Thomas
 Sheep is life is a Navajo saying that Chip learned intimately while photographing an elderly couple and their 40-something daughter bringing the sheep in from the summer to the winter pastures.  He walked with them for 5 days across the stunning desert landscape and these photos are the source for some of his wheatpastes. Spanning nearly two and a half decades of observing, participating in and photographing Navajo life, Chip's images are remarkable and striking specifically because they're so honest and devoid of cliche.  Looking at them, we realize how inured we've become to the stereotypical images of the exotic native ceremony, or miserable Indian poverty. When asked about his audiences, he talks about three groups, first mentioning the overwhelming positive response from the Navajo community.  A patient will say, "you made my grandmother smile when she saw the sheep on the kiosk." He mentions how moved he is when young people feel inspired by his work to view their own community through different eyes and create art themselves.  Finally, the images give tourists something nuanced to consider, beyond the "noble savage" or the "poor victim." 

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