Wheelwright exhibit looks at two generations of Navajo artists - Albuquerque Journal

Wheelwright exhibit looks at two generations of Navajo artists

“Autumnal Flower Bombs,” Tony Abeyta, (b. 1965, Navajo), 2019, acrylic on raw canvas. Loan from the John B. Strong and Carlos Acosta Collection. (Courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian)
“Untitled (Bracelet),” Tony Abeyta, (b. 1965, Navajo), 2018, sterling silver and coral. Loan from the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. (Courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian)

The Abeyta family gestated a fulcrum of artistic innovation ranging from the Studio Style to contemporary abstraction.

The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian has gathered their work in a tribute to two generations of Navajo life.

The exhibition’s Navajo title “To’Hajiilee K’é” refers to family and connections to love and compassion.

“The museum’s past curators and director all fostered relationships with the Abeyta family over the years,” said Andrea Hanley, Wheelwright curator. “These are leaders in the Native American art world.”

Their story begins in 1918 with the birth of Narciso Abeyta, the family’s nucleus.

Narciso studied with the late Dorothy Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School, then went on to study modern art with the Transcendental painter Raymond Jonson at the University of New Mexico. You can see the stylistic shift in his work.

Dunn believed her students had an innate artistic ability. The style she advocated, which became controversial, called the “Studio Style” or “flat-style painting,” was inspired by Pueblo mural and pottery painting, Plains hide painting and rock art.

“In a sense (Narciso) was one of the fathers of Navajo art,” Hanley said. His compatriots were such legendary studio art movement artists as Harrison Begay, Allan Houser and Pablita Velarde.

“Navajo Fawn Hunt,” Narciso Abeyta, (1918-1998, Navajo) 1937, gouache on paper. (Courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian)

Narciso’s charming “Navajo Fawn Hunt” (1937) exemplifies Dunn’s training with its flat color fields. But a joyous spark ignites the composition.

“You think of hunting as very aggressive, but it’s just delightful,” said Narciso’s son Tony Abeyta, himself a contemporary painting star.

Narciso was also a Golden Glove boxer and a World War II Code Talker.

The artist’s “Navajo Wedding at Canyoncito, NMex (Elizabeth Abeyta’s Wedding)” reveals style changes by 1970. The velvety figures of the women grow more three-dimensional, their facial features more detailed.

“Navajo Wedding at Canyoncito, NMex (Elizabeth Abeyta’s Wedding),” Narciso Abeyta, (1918-1998, Navajo) c. 1970, gouache on paper. Loan from Tia Collection. (Courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian)

“Almost all of this work celebrates the feminine,” Tony said, “celebrates the matriarchal society that is Navajo culture.”

Tony’s late sister Elizabeth Abeyta’s “Rain Watch – Cloud Gathering,” (1995) marks another tribute to the feminine with its gathering of watchful women.

Hanley worked with the sculptor and activist Pablita Abeyta at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in its infancy during the 1990s. Pablita earned a master’s in public affairs degree from the University of New Mexico, then worked as a lobbyist for the Navajo Nation in Washington, D.C. She coordinated a national effort to secure the passage of amendments related to her people. She was a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and later became a congressional liaison for the National Museum of the American Indian.

“Rain Watch – Cloud Gathering,” Elizabeth Abeyta, (1955-2006, Navajo, 1995, clay, paint, leather, shells. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. (Courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian)

“She was a self-taught artist and she was influenced by her sister Elizabeth and her father,” Hanley said. “Her professional mentors were really strong women.”

Pablita also won multiple awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market. Politicians such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, Campbell and Hawaii’s Sen. Daniel Inouye collected her work. She died in 2017.

“Navajo Sisters – A Secret,” Pablita Abeyta, (1953-2017, Navajo), c. 1990-91, clay, paint, turquoise. National Museum of the American Indian. (Courtesy of Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian)

“She created a life of service to her people,” Hanley said. “She was a player in American history and her work was phenomenal.”

Elizabeth’s “Untitled (Trickster),” (1984) marks an eccentric take on the storyteller figure.

“She did a lot of coyote figures,” Tony said. “She had a lot of close friends at Hopi and Santo Domingo Pueblo.”

Born and raised in Gallup, Tony would go on to graduate from New York University and win an honorary doctorate from Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts. He creates mixed-media paintings (and sometimes jewelry) as he listens to his collection of vinyl records, especially hip-hop and jazz.

“Untitled (Trickster),” Elizabeth Abeyta, (1955-2006, Navajo), 1984, clay, paint, leather, turquoise, silver, shell, beads. (Courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian)

Today he toggles between homes in Santa Fe and Berkeley, California.

His golden explosion “Autumnal Flower Bombs” (2019) sprang from a series of ink drawings.

“It started my transition to living in California,” he said. “I was working in large-scale floral motifs.”

He was making aggressively quick drawings, throwing inked sponges, then spraying them with water.

“I wanted an angry bravado,” he said, adding he wanted to merge the masculine and feminine in a single work.

Tony Abeyta in his studio. (Courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian)

“It was about explosions and spritzing and spraying. And then (filling) in with a softer hand in charcoal.”

As a young man, Tony explored art from School of the Art Institute of Chicago to Maine’s Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. In 2012 he won the New Mexico Governor’s Award and the Native Treasures of New Mexico Award.

“He is one of the most successful artists out there,” Hanley said. “The line that he has is so beautiful.”

“We always did art,” Tony added. “That was the household I grew up in.”

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