Abeyta | To’Hajiilee K’é at the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe spotlights the invaluable contributions of a Navajo family of artists and deepens an understanding of Indigenous and American histories.
Abeyta | To’Hajiilee K’é
February 12, 2022–January 7, 2023
Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe
While some families are creative hobbyists on the weekends, art was a full-time lifestyle for Tony Abeyta (Navajo) and his family of decorated artists.
His father Narciso, a World War II Navajo Code Talker and Golden Gloves boxer, is known for his figurative paintings depicting Navajo life—his work is held in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Tony’s sister Pablita was a Native American lobbyist and Navajo sculptor. Younger sibling Elizabeth garnered first-place awards for her contemporary ceramic works at Santa Fe Indian Market.
And Tony’s mother was a craftsperson with woodworking tools, different types of regional clays, paints and paper, and hand-built Navajo weaving tools.
“If you wanted to create and make something, you had all of the resources in the house,” says Tony Abeyta, who grew up in Gallup, New Mexico. A 2012 recipient of the New Mexico Governor’s Excellence in the Arts award, the contemporary mixed-media painter has also been recognized as a Native treasure by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe.
The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe recently opened Abeyta | To’Hajiilee K’é, an exhibition that celebrates and honors the Abeytas’ contributions to the art world. The show displays more than sixty works including paintings, sculptures, and jewelry from the Abeyta family. The Wheelwright Museum writes that the show provides “a cultural history and the distinctive perspective of two generations of Navajo life and art, and a continuum in art practice and storytelling.”
To’Hajiilee, located approximately thirty-five miles west of Albuquerque, used to be known as Cañoncito. The Abeytas are originally from the area that’s specific to the Cañoncito Band of Navajo. “To’Hajiilee means the place where the water is drawn up, and K’é is a Navajo word that refers to family, love, and compassion,” says Andrea Hanley (Navajo), chief curator at the Wheelwright. “[The exhibition title] alludes to all of the threads that connect this family.”
“I feel like they have distinct styles, but they all share a family narrative and these ideas and beliefs about being Navajo. They have these great cultural histories and explore storytelling and their own practices,” explains Hanley. “This exhibition moves forward and celebrates the larger family and a family connection to important historical moments of conflict, self-determination, and agency.”
Narciso Abeyta learned under art educator Dorothy Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School and later trained under modernist painter Raymond Jonson following his military service. Tony—whose works are included at the National Museum of the American Indian, Boston Fine Arts Museum, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, and Denver Art Museum—explains that he shares artistic similarities and differences with his father.
“I’m more of an easel painter working on canvas where my father worked on paper and board,” he says. “We had two different techniques, styles, and imagery, but I learned a lot from him with color and the experience of how he worked with rhythms and his way of composing. Really just leading the eye throughout the whole composition. That had a lot of effect on how I still work today.
“I look at how he worked with lyrical rhythms within the work and created cohesive compositions that are really well thought out,” says Tony. “They look random, but he was very, very deliberate and strategic in how he composed.”
The artist, who splits his time between Santa Fe and the Berkeley, California area, says that his father also influenced the work of his late sisters Pablita and Elizabeth. The former, a Washington D.C. lobbyist for the Navajo Nation, sculpted beautiful figures out of hand-colored clay, while the latter created three-dimensional clay versions of her father’s work, according to Tony.
“I think, in a lot of ways, that the exhibition broadens and deepens our understanding of Native American art and history as well as American history,” says Hanley.
Abeyta | To’Hajiilee K’é is scheduled to remain on view through January 7, 2023, at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 704 Camino Lejo in Santa Fe.