Commercialization of the Navajo Sand Painting Practice

For the West, art has traditionally been considered as the mark of civilization, in so far as humanity is able to capture and render the essence of beauty and preserve this through their “artwork.” ( Gilbert, 1982; Errington, 1994; Witherspoon, 1977)  Indeed, art may even be a purely Western construct “since textiles and jewellery, clothing and cosmetics (to mention only a few of the contexts where aesthetic choices operate) are not usually considered by us to be Art with a capital ‘A’.” (Gilbert, 1982: 168)

The understanding and appreciation of non-Western “art” has therefore been problematic for many scholars, given that branding such cultural products and practices as such carries with it the enthnocentric connotations of the Western definition which usually defines “art” based on the value system of Western culture (Gilbert, 1982: 167-168; Errington, 1994: 203; Clifford, 1988:221) that, as Robbins (2005) points out, has become more and more concerned with the accumulation of material wealth and the derivation of fulfillment from the consumption of products (Robbins 2005:20) and where the perception of beauty is lamentably static. (Witherspoon, 1977:152)

Critics have likewise noted that “art” in the West has often connoted being “art by intention,” which are produced and valued to be perceived for their beauty and for the monetary value that they carried.(Errington, 1994: 201) This is distinguished from what is considered as “art by appropriation” or the things that were produced for purposes other than art but are appraised to be of high value with antiquity or the possession of an indigenous or unique identity, thereby alienating them from the culture that produced them.

Witherspoon (1977), for instance, emphasizes the importance of defining indigenous behavior, institutions, and practices within the context of their culture or at the very least, “against the backdrop of their view of the world or their ideological frame of reference.” (Witherspoon 1977:4) This includes confronting the fact that these cultures often evolve or even change with their exposure to other cultures and vice versa.

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The dilemma over the treatment and definition of non-Western art is illustrated, for instance, in efforts to preserve Navajo sand paintings so they could be sold and collected (Errington, 1994: 203). The sand paintings which were originally used in Navajo religious rites and healing ceremonies have been described as “true masterpieces of art” for their “instinctive awareness of the basic principles of design, colour harmonies, and contrasts.” (Foster, 1963:43) Ironically, the sand paintings were created by the Navajo not for art’s sake but as an integral part of religious healing ceremonies to locate and reestablish of an individual in his or her right place in the the universe and thus cure his or her illness.

These paintings often utilized colored sand, cornmeal, and other bits of material to depict the Navajo’s vision of the cosmos and to symbolize their socio-economic life and other cultural elements.(Robbins, 2005: 14; Foster, 1963: 43) Foster (1963) notes that the Navajo was able to make over a thousand designs from symbols and patterns that were unique to them, and how, after the sand painting had been painstakingly drawn, the shamans would proceed to rub parts of the design on the individual who was to be cured while praying through chants. For the Navajo people, the sand paintings were indeed relevant not only as a religious tool but also as a source of magic.

Horrified by the fact that these intricate sand paintings were often destroyed by being sat on or rubbed off during the healing process and thrown out afterwards, “concerned” individuals found ways to keep these intact using glue and other materials. (Errington, 1994: 203) This concern to preserve the end product of a cultural practice for its artistic or aesthetic value, however, contrasts sharply with the Navajo’s concept of beauty that lies more in the creative process that is inextricably linked with their way of life itself. Thus, beauty for the Navajo lies not in the sand painting that has served its purpose in curing a community member’s illness but in the entire religious ceremony where the sand painting is but a small component.

The careless tendency to preserve or collect “art” from other cultures therefore engenders the superimposition of  another culture’s value systems and assumptions of meaning on the cultural practices or even the products of cultural practices (Errington, 1994: 205). This is especially true in the case of the sand paintings, where the preservation enabled them to become “ durable and portable, able to be moved to new locations, and hung on the walls as “art”” (Errington, 1994:205). With this transformation from a religious and highly significant part of Navajo tradition to a home or museum artifact, the Navajo sand painting tend to lose its significance as it became divorced from the culture that produced it.

Thus, the Navajo sand painting seem to have lost its meaning as it became more and more commercialized. Approriated as art, the practice became insignificant insofar as the culture and the community that practiced it disintegrated, devoiding sand painting of its ritual meaning and significance.

Works Cited:

Clifford, J. (1988). The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Errington, S. (1994). What became authentic primitive art? Cultural Anthropology, 9(2).

Foster, K. (1963). Navajo sand paintings. Man, 63.

Gilbert, M. (1982). Art: the primitive view. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 22(2).

Robbins, R. H. (2005). Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Witherspoon, G. (1977). Language and Art in the Navajo Universe. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.














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