Santa Fe, NM

A Must Do This Holiday - Shonto Begay at the Wheelwright Museum

Diane Hatz - Whole Healthy Group

Shonto Begay: Eyes of the World is on exhibit until December 31st at the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe. Shonto Begay is a Dine (Navajo) master artist who sees his paintings as a narrative of his life.

He is known for his unique brushstrokes of short or broken color that follow swirling designs. Often associated with neo-impressionism, it is his own style developed over 30 years of painting.

“All of the strokes, circles, lines, squiggles, curlicues, dots and slashes I use are part of a visual chant through the spirit world,” says Begay. “They are syllables, which lead to words, then to sentences, paragraphs, and, finally, to these ancient prayers.”

Begay continues, “I have around 31 little marks that are alphabets in my paintings, and I use them in every one of my works.”

One of his most powerful paintings, “Watching Us,” portrays a group of young boys in a movie theater, their faces a mixture of horror, sadness, and shock. These are the different facets of emotion Begay experienced when he was taken from his family at a young age and forced into a U.S. government-run boarding school.

The intent of the school was to erase Native American culture from the children by not allowing them to speak their language, practice their religion, wear traditional clothes, or wear their hair long. The systematic physical and emotional trauma from these forced actions continues today in many Native American communities.
"Watching Us" (2014 - partial image of painting);painting by Shonto Begay; photo by Diane Hatz

“Watching Us” depicts Begay’s actual experience and different emotions as he was forced to watch B-grade Western movies that always portrayed Native people as the bad guy.

“I was what they call a generation of the walking traumas. Of the 13 boys that I grew up with very closely, there's only three of us alive,” Begay told in a 2021 interview.

Begay says of his time in the boarding schools. “Mentally, physically–it took a lot of lives. A sense of hopelessness. It was a brutal situation. It was a really brutal experience. I survived it and that's why I do art. It keeps me from going to a place where I don’t want to go.”

Begay’s painting marks a piece of history that must be remembered.

Other paintings of note in the exhibition include:
"Hero Twins on the Edge of Creation" (2016 - partial image of painting)painting by Shonto Begay; photo by Diane Hatz
“Friday Nights in Tuba City” (2008 - partial image of painting) /painting by Shonto Begay; photo by Diane Hatz

Begay is one of 16 children born on the Navajo Nation, or Dinetah, in Arizona to a Navajo rug weaver of the Black Water clan and a traditional medicine man of the Salt clan. He has been painting for 30 years. His art can be found in museums around the country, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

Shonto Begay: Eyes of the World

The Wheelwright Museum

704 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe

Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 4pm

Admission: $8

Exhibition ends: December 31st, 2021

Diane Hatz is a creative writer, impact consultant and contributor to Newsbreak. Follow her to learn more about food, art, culture, health and wellness in the Santa Fe and New Mexico areas.

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Santa Fe, NM

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