In a section of Northern New Mexico’s Navajo Nation, Marina Eskeets says, locals don’t talk about issues unless asked first. That’s why it wasn’t until she was older that she learned the full extent of what disaster did to her community.
Eskeets, a photographer and multimedia artist, grew up in the town of Naná’áztiin, on part of the Rez in New Mexico, surrounded by old uranium mines. She was always aware of the mines, but later discovered that, in 1979, a breach from a mine near Church Rock east of Gallup caused about 94 million gallons of radioactive solution to flow into the Rio Puerco River and seep into the surrounding land.
The area was not listed as a state disaster site, as requested by the Diné people, and the spill was never cleaned up by the corporation involved because the mines closed shortly after.
In 1983, the spill area was designated a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which detected elevated radium and uranium contamination in 14 locations.
“For me, it was a big change in my perspective of how I grew up,” Eskeets said. “I used to play in the river, not knowing I maybe shouldn’t play in there.”
Over three generations, she and her family witnessed firsthand what the mining did to the area as family members fell ill from years in the mines, and water and land became infiltrated with invisible poisons from the disaster.
Eskeets, whose father was a miner, uses the themes of energy extraction in Navajo communities and the “environmental racism” displayed in the way she says the indigenous people and their land were forgotten following the spill, which, by volume, was the single biggest release of radioactive materials in U.S. history.
Her solo show, documenting personal experiences of life and culture in her home area, as well as the effects the mines and the spill had on the Navajo people’s identity, will debut tonight at Foto Forum Santa Fe, a new photography gallery and nonprofit.
In addition to black-and-white photos of the abandoned mines today, Eskeets work includes more symbolic pieces. There’s a video of her great aunt’s former garden that includes narration from her father about how the land used to be, as well as landscape photos overlaid with the periodic table’s symbol for radium.
The piece shows “even though you don’t see it, it’s there,” she said.
She’s also including drawings of the human body that highlight specific areas most affected by radioactivity, such as the lungs, bone marrow and female reproductive system.
“I realized this isn’t something new or only isolated,” she noted. “There’s many places across the Navajo nation, reservations or areas heavily populated with indigenous people affected by extraction and the irresponsible end on the corporation’s side.”
Other fine art works she’ll include in the gallery exhibit show a more personal side of the people and the culture. Found-item pieces she’s created represent a more personal side of her life as a Diné woman. A painting shows the Spider Woman deity weaving her hair into a rug as a representation of knowledge and culture.
Though Foto Forum is a photography space, Eskeets said, gallery owner Sage Paisner set no restrictions on what art she could showcase.
“I just look at storytelling and visual storytelling,” said Paisner, who met Eskeets a few years ago while he was a film teacher and she was a student at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. His work showed at the gallery’s opening in November.
Eskeets, though, is Foto Forum’s first official exhibitioner in the space about two blocks west of the Railyard on Paseo de Peralta.
Paisner added that he wants to champion young, New Mexican artists by giving them solo shows. He thought of Eskeet’s socially conscious work as a perfect fit.
The goal of her show, she said, is to represent those who live in the Church Rock area despite the hardships and problems caused by resource extraction and corporate neglect.
“We need to protect our mother, she protects us all the time and we can’t live without her,” said Eskeets. “We need to be more conscious about that.”