SANTA FE, N.M. — In his search for his own identity, Ehren Kee Natay has found answers both in hip-hop and Native American cultures.
They, in turn, find expression in his art, some of which reflects his concerns about a lost connection to the land, to the corn and water that have sustained Native cultures in the Southwest for centuries.
“URBN NDN” (Urban Indian), an acrylic painting consisting of two panels, shows a three-eyed humanoid spray-painting clouds into existence; they shed tears as the painter holds a lollipop, symbolic of how our consumption of corn has evolved to corn syrup in sweets, Natay said.
Raised and currently residing in Santa Fe, son of a Kewa/Diné father and a German/Irish mother, Natay notes that he’s an urban Indian himself. He also is the current Rollin and Mary Ella King Native Artist Fellow at the School for Advanced Research, a three-month period of study and work that ends for him Dec. 1.
He will give a talk about his work at 5:30 p.m. Thursday and open his studio to visitors at SAR, 660 Garcia St.
Much of that work during his fellowship has involved research and discovery, spent in the library or talking with others, rather than at the drawing board – which might explain why he’s hard at work now producing some art for visitors to see, he said.
Natay explained the theme of his explorations during a recent interview in the SAR studio.
“I started looking at feast days,” a tradition shared within Native communities but often including outside visitors. “But I was looking at things through a different lens,” Natay continued. He started thinking about how much food was wasted, and “I looked at what was on the table and started thinking about traditional foods.”
In most cases, he said, those foods were pretty good, sustaining a healthy life.
These days, he said, if you put a seed in people’s hands, they won’t know where to put it or how to nurture it to feed their families. Give them a $100 bill, though, and they know all about going to the grocery store – where many of the aisles are filled with products that past generations wouldn’t have even recognized as food.
“We’re losing our connection with that plant, the whole connection and obligation to the earth,” he said, pointing to the symbiotic relationship between humans and corn. “We watch after each other.”
Ask people who turn on the faucet where their water has been and they usually have no idea, he said. But once Pueblo people carried their water home in buckets and bowls and knew exactly where the source was.
“There’s such a disconnect with our provisions,” Natay said. “This is a thing that really has to be talked about, the need to have the knowledge and pass it down about how to be at one with nature.”
While he respects and wants to find a way to incorporate those traditions into daily life, Natay also has his feet firmly planted in contemporary street culture. He has worked a lot with spray paint and graffiti styles, commenting, “Graffiti says a lot about our culture and what is important to Americans. It’s a toxic, explodable, flammable form of art.”
He studied drumming, “went the punk route,” and joined a band that toured Washington state and the Southwest, he said. “I started to see that we probably weren’t going to make it,” he said and, searching for another creative way to support himself, left his Las Vegas, Nev., residence of the time and returned to New Mexico.
He studied art-making – silver-smithing and pottery – in traditional Native forms at the Poeh Art Center at Pojoaque Pueblo. At the same time, he became more involved in hip-hop culture and with Dancing Earth. “I’m coming into the company as a martial artist, so I’m gravitating to break-dancing,” Natay said. “It’s a high-energy, aggressive form of dance.”
Hip-hop culture is a place where he has found acceptance, he said, where people from all backgrounds come together over music, dance, art and more that express what they find important in life and what needs to change in society.
Growing up mixed-race, he said, he often felt rejected by people on both sides of the racial divide. “Thankfully, I had a very supportive family and a very supportive art community,” Natay said. “More and more, I’m having confidence in who I am and where I come from … .
“I hope in 200 years people can look back at my works and say this is what Native people were going through in such a transitionary period,” he continued. “I’m documenting my experience, trying to find a balance with both (cultures).”