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Art Talk: Emmi Whitehorse’s Hauntingly Beautiful ‘Self Surrender’

Emmi Whitehorse, Cultural affiliations: Diné (Navajo), born 1957, Self Surrender (#1242), 1999, oil on paper on canvas, Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence Kansas.

Located at the Spencer Museum of Art, right on campus, is an unassuming orange painting on the 4th floor. I’m obsessed with it.

It is an Emmi Whitehorse painting called Self Surrender (#1242) and it’s been consuming my dreams. Have you ever seen those photographs of Sydney in an orange dust storm, or one of those great sand clouds that descends on Phoenix every year? This painting makes me think of that.

Maybe it’s because I spent 7 years of my life living on the south edge of Phoenix as a kid. We were so south of the city, that we were even south of South Mountain. It was us, our lonely mountain that glittered with red radio towers, and the endless desert of the Gila River Indian Reserve.

When one of those great haboobs (def. – a violent and oppressive wind, bringing sand from the desert. Go ahead and snicker, it’s a funny word) came in from the south, it often pressed our little neighborhood down into the ground. If you were unlucky enough to get caught on the way back from school in one of these storms, you would have sand biting into your face, and the sun would disappear for a few minutes, and when you finally got home your mom would make you hose off before you track mud and dirt into the house – she had just vacuumed after all.

That’s what I see when I look at this work. The orange is the cloud of dirt that covers us. All the black and white scribbles are the buildings and the people who are trapped where they stand, until the wind passes. Though I feel the howling winds in the work, the painting feels incredibly still. Like I am stuck in between seconds as I wait for blue skies again.

I don’t necessarily think that this vaguely apocalyptic desert scene is what Whitehorse imagined when she painted this work. The work is titled Self Surrender (#1242) and is based on her own family experiences.

Whitehorse was born in Crownpoint, New Mexico and was student at a government mandatory boarding school for Navajo girls. Her B.A. in painting and M.A. in printmaking are from the University of New Mexico. She lives and works in Santa Fe. Much of her work was originally inspired by her grandmother’s weavings. And as time went on, these forms and her visual vocabulary became more abstracted and more suggestive of landscapes as well as the memory of them.

As a painter, I recognize the techniques used in her work. This work was done with oil on paper, mounted onto canvas. When an artist paints on unprimed paper or raw canvas, the color bleeds from the paint. The pigment begins to separate from the oil binding agent. Creating hazy clouds and fields of color when the paint starts to absorb into the picture plane.

When I look at this work I see my childhood under a cloud of dust, everything obscured except the lights in buildings, and even then those are closer to mirages. Maybe Whitehorse sees something similar. Nothing as literal as I do, but perhaps she sees a childhood taken away from her, parts of her Navajo identity lost because of government colonial intervention.

Though we come from different backgrounds, I think that we both understand how achingly empty the desert can feel: how when you hear the scraping noise of sand in a howling wind you close your eyes and are swallowed.