Stripped Away

Wallace Begay's paintings tell the sad story of his Indian-boarding-school years

Atrio of naked boys stands in line in a schoolroom.

They crisscross their hands in front of their genitals, and the lead boy bows his head in shame. A severe woman in a tight bun sits at a desk and glares at them. The windows in the room are big enough to let in light, but they allow no view of the windswept Navajo land that these boys left. Instead of the rollercoaster hills of the reservation, the only thing they can see is another building, its massive walls blocking any glimpse of home.

Welcome to Indian boarding school, circa 1963.

In Wallace Begay's Boarding School Years at Contreras Gallery, "Checking In" is one of several autobiographical paintings that translate the artist's brutal school experiences into paint and canvas.

Begay was taken from his family home near Tolani Lake, in Northern Arizona, at the age of 6 and put into the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school at Leupp. It was just 25 or 30 miles away, but the cultural chasm was wide. He went home to his parents only twice a year. He was separated from his siblings in the dorms. He wasn't allowed to speak his native Navajo.

And at registration, just as in the painting, Begay and the other children were stripped—literally of their clothes, and metaphorically of their identities.

"Boarding school had a way of dismantling you—to undress you and start you in the new way," says Begay, who now lives in Tucson. "It's the same thing I've seen in movies about concentration camps. You have to undress the person, cut off their hair and record their name on a piece of paper—to let them know they're captured.

"It was a horrible, horrible feeling to stand there without your clothes."

Begay relives that feeling in paint. The first boy's face has turned blue and savage. The second boy's is a bright yellow; he turns and looks at the viewer in despair. The back of the third boy's head is stained a bloody crimson.

Many of Begay's other paintings in the 14-work show are near-abstractions, with movements and figures shattered into patchy fields of color. "Dancers on the Plaza," 24 inches high by 6 feet long, is a long swathe of flying shapes that translate the movements of traditional Indian dancers into a blur of color.

"Checking In" more directly tells a story, but Begay's oil paints also dance across the school's grim spaces here, lightening the place with layers of color in yellow, turquoise and orange. And Begay has heightened the sense of fate—and doom—by plastering playing cards above the figures. A particularly vicious-looking joker floats right above the angry woman at the desk.

A handful of other narrative works hew closely to Begay's own story. Vicious boys were used to keep order in the dorms, he says, and most kids joined gangs for protection. He and a couple of others refused to join, so they had to fight to defend themselves every day. "The Challenger" pictures one boy bloodying another in a ditch in a typical afterschool fight.

"Trash" re-creates the boarding-school bathroom, where there were no doors on the stalls. "You'd drag the trashcans in front of you, for privacy," he says.

In the painting, the boys have become the trash: Their heads stick up over the edge of the waste cans. The work is a metaphor, Begay says, for the way Native Americans were treated.

Not surprisingly, Begay ran away, three times in his nine or 10 years at the school, but he never succeeded in eluding capture longer than overnight. "The Runaways"—a wonderful scratchboard drawing with white lines cut into black board with a knife—commemorates one of those failed attempts: Three young boys are making their way through fields in the dark. In the distance are some lights, perhaps from the school or from a village, and a bridge over a creek is seen faintly in white. White stars dot the night sky. With just a few lines, Begay conjures up the landscape, the fear, the darkness.

Begay had at least one kind teacher, who taught him art. And when he finished the boarding-school program, an uncle took him to live in Window Rock, where he went to a regular public high school and marveled at the freedom of his new life. He burrowed into art in high school, and eventually studied art at three colleges, including the UA.

A Tucson painting pays homage to the local landscape. A sliver of moon rises over the Catalinas, and a cubist city unfurls in a tangle of squares and rectangles below. But Begay says he longs for the reservation, and for home.

"I've been wayward about being in cities," he says. "I have a determination to return there and to revitalize the family ranch."

"The Ride Home, Tolani Lake, Arizona" embodies that hope. It's an emotional painting, conjuring up a return to a homeplace that Begay left 47 years ago. A dog trots alongside a man on a horse. Their backs are to the city they're leaving behind. Seen from the rear, they move slowly through the scrub flats, on toward some green fields, the yellow mountains and the blue-gray sky—back to Navajo land.

Up the street at Conrad Wilde Gallery, the Structures show appears at first to be the equivalent of a calm counterpoint to the passions and colors of Begay's exhibition. Nearly every piece at Wilde is white, or gray, or black, or some combination thereof. Some are indeed meditative.

David Longwell, the Tucson Museum of Art staffer who regularly hangs elegant exhibitions of other people's work, here makes a rare showing of his own art. "Marks out of Time" is a series of black-and-white ink drawings on clayboard squares. Longwell makes one every morning, according to gallery owner Miles Conrad, and they're mostly circles, perhaps paying homage to the rising sun.

Kim Matthews of Minneapolis makes wonderfully contemplative works in the surprising combo of canvas and concrete. "Colony" is an undulating white concrete work of peaks and holes; it could be the surface of the moon or, conversely, the magnified surface of human skin.

But some of these seemingly serene pieces are more about turmoil than they seem at first glance. Conrad's "biomorphic abstraction" of found materials—metal, fishing line, cardboard, cactus spines—is arranged charmingly on one wall. These little sculptures have the look of sea creatures, but all is not well in their underwater world: They're covered in an oily black encaustic wax, and their ominous title, "Gulf Colony," alludes to the disastrous oil spill.

Likewise, Tim Mosman's ink-on-paper drawings have an environmental link. Mosman picked a piece of bamboo from a jungle-like patch growing on a street in Mexico City, Conrad says, and used it as his pen. His wild, free-form drawings—bold black lines dancing across white paper—are not entirely cheerful.

Perhaps Begay's paintings about torture and escape are exerting an influence on me, but Mosman's images suggest not peace, but people on the run.

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