MIAC names DAN NAMINGHA a Living Treasure
Artist abstracts elements of his culture in order to express himself while preserving sacredness
Dan Namingha is a wizard who can ponder landscape and spirituality, and express it as art. Or make a song visible in painting. Or abstract a fallen branch into a steel sculpture.
And he’s been doing it for something approaching 50 years now. No wonder, then, that the Santa Fe artist of Tewa/Hopi heritage was named this year’s Living Treasure by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
That honor lands Namingha an 11-piece exhibition of his works, opening March 20 and running through mid-September, in the museum’s foyer area. In addition, he’ll serve as ambassador and create a new artwork for the Native Treasures Indian Arts Festival, which is the museum’s largest fundraiser and runs May 28-29 at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. He’ll also receive a piece of artwork from the previous year’s honorees, Teri Greeves and Keri Ataumbi.
That event’s theme, “Mother Earth,” is well suited for the kind of work the artist does, from sculpture to painting to lithograph and more, much of it inspired by some element of Hopi ceremonies and spirituality that have their roots in the earth and landscape of the tribe. “Dan is a highly regarded artist for works that respectfully interpret Native culture. His strength lies in its demonstrating his concern for Mother Earth,” said Della Warrior, MIAC director, in a news release.
After all, the Hopi creation stories tell of their people emerging through the earth from the Third to the Fourth worlds, said Namingha, who
grew up on Hopi land. That sacred center of the world, or sipapu, is in the Grand Canyon, he said.
“Now we’re on a journey into the Fifth World,” he said.
In explaining some of the things he’s been pondering before making an artwork for Native Treasures, Namingha said, “Our planet is moving in a direction that is negative as far as weather changes affecting the ice caps and different places, with the water level getting higher. But it’s not too late to change.
“The idea,” he continued, “is how to condense that down to something that is very minimal, but effective.”
C.L. Kieffer, curator for Namingha’s upcoming MIAC show, said it’s that ability to convey a feeling or a message in a few basic brushstrokes that makes her a “huge fan” of abstract art. “Abstract art takes a lot more thought about what you want to convey and why,” she said.
And as an archaeologist who specializes in ritual, Kieffer said she particularly appreciates Namingha’s inclusion of Hopi ceremony and beliefs in his art.
“He is taking very sacred elements of his culture but, to protect the sacredness, he abstracts them,” she said. “It’s a beautiful way to express the culture and keep a piece for yourself.”
Namingha said he often abstracts ceremonial objects in his art to protect their sanctity, but still allow them to project a sense of the spirituality and meaning of the ceremonies in his culture.
Oddly enough, he started out in school studying to be an illustrator, but discovered that was not what he wanted to do, Namingha said. Other career options might have been to be a musician, he said, noting he used to play guitar a lot, or perhaps to follow the path of his grandparents and parents by raising cattle and horses.
But he also carries the DNA of great-great grandmother Nampeyo (1856-1942), a famed Hopi potter, and his sons Arlo and Michael have successful art careers themselves.
“I’ve always been very experimental,” he said of his work. While his style and techniques have changed over the decades, his work has not transformed in a linear fashion, as he sometimes will go back and explore reinterpretations of previous works.
For instance, he did some paintings in the ’70s based on aerial views of the land, using plaster and paint to convey the texture of the landscape. Later, he said, he revisited those forms and translated them into sculpture with cut-outs, he said.
In describing his approach to minimalism, Namingha said he might be looking at a landscape and do a sketch of it. He will break it down to a semi-abstract form, then convert it to total abstraction, then get rid of a major portion until it’s reduced to a simple form or lines. And depending on his vision for the artwork, he might stop at one of those intermediate steps.
Namingha said he is currently working on a large painting divided in half, with one half presenting almost an illustrator’s depiction of butterflies, but against a very soft, out-of-focus background, while on the other half he is applying plaster to represent the sandstone texture of a cliff. On it, he will apply symbols representing his version of pictographs, with the center representing the sipapu — a place offering a passageway for prayers to the spirit world, which then come back “to you, to the planet, to the community,” he said.
While many of his works are based in land, culture and spirituality, those aren’t his only inspirations, Namingha added.
“There are times I’m inspired by just pure color and shapes,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll do a collage of work, mix up mediums and see what will happens. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything objective.”
He also has tried to give visual expression to songs that his father and grandfather composed for tribal ceremonies, he said. “Twenty songs are used in two days,” Namingha said. “They are so poetic.”
He respectfully named teachers who guided him through the years, from elementary school through the American Academy of Art in Chicago, as well as those at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
“I learned about form and the freedom to express yourself through experimentation,” Namingha said. “That has always stayed with me. That’s kind of my mantra.”
TOP: Namingha’s “Kachina Montage” is a bronze edition of six, 1997.
“Corn Katsina,” 2014, is an acrylic on canvas painting by Santa Fe artist Dan Namingha.
“New Mexico Kiva,” acrylic on canvas, 2014
Santa Fe artist Dan Namingha painted this acrylic on canvas, “Hummingbird Kachina Spirits,” in 1994.
Namingha’s “Assemblage” is a bronze edition of 10 made in 2008.