Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Eugene Tapahe’s “Hózhó + Art Heals” Unearths and Elevates Our Connections to the Land

Details from Eugene Tapahe’s installation, “Kéyah,” part of Hózhó + Art Heals at BYU’s Weight Room Gallery. Image credit: Karilee Park

There are things in life that are predictable, normalcy that we can expect, bringing security in the ordinary. Dirt, for example, is often, quite literally, below our notice. It is a guarantee of firmness beneath our feet, allowing us to step with little thought or worry. In Hózhó + Art Heals, Eugene Tapahe’s MFA show currently at BYU’s Weight Room Gallery, the artist elevates dirt to our awareness. His “Kéyah” features 96 soil samples collected from the United States and Canada. The collection showcases a variety of colors—rust reds, deep blue grays, and pale neutrals—and textures, ranging from finely ground sands to coarse, rock-filled soils. These reflect the intricate diversities of the people, places and communities inhabiting North America. The installation is a natural example of repetition with variation: finding solace in commonality and beauty in variegation. These samples sit on a bed of red earth with a cross of corn pollen in its center—an offering to Mother Earth.

Hózhó, a Diné Bizaad (or Navajo) word that means “walking in beauty,” is also a philosophy of life, a reference to the beauty and balance that permeates through the physical senses as a way of life and a state of being. How often do we think of the land under our feet as we walk? Who walked the path before rubber soles crunched through gritty sand or soft soil? Did their steps affect our present ones? For the video installation “Kéyah Yił,” Tapahe filmed a meditative and ritualistic walk he undertook in Monument Valley, AZ. It is a tribute to his ancestral connection with the land and follows the pattern of the four sacred directions. Land and water are represented in the circular design he walks, as he leaves Mother Earth a personal offering of corn at the circular design’s center.

Installation view of “Kéyah Yił.” Image credit: Karilee Park.

The four sacred directions also appear in “Nahasdzáán,” a prayer and offering that begins with the East and moves to the South and West before  ending with North. In Tapahe’s exhibition, each direction has its own 24 x 24-inch sand work, with the Diné Bizaad word for “the world” or “the earth” in white, barely noticeable, above. Each directional design incorporates circles, creating balance. Natural installations of grasses and sand instill a feeling of groundedness. The smell of earth and dried plants fills the small space. The smell is clean, but strong. For some it may carry memories, and for others it may create new ones. Our senses hold memory. Even the faintest of sensations can transport us to the nostalgic or the tragic, like an internal time-machine. Whether events return with clarity or only with fragments of familiarity, we feel it pull or push — an unseen anchor or an invisible propulsion that influences perspective and action in ways we cannot always control.

Walking the land, walking with direction, with purpose, as a tribute and a recollection rather than to get from point A to B, brings these works together and connects them to another recent project, Tapahe’s the Jingle Dress Project (see here). In the latter, Tapahe brought healing to the land, and in these recent works he brings the land to the people: connecting a cycle of earth to humanity and back again. Hózhó + Art Heals invites the viewer to look at the world differently—to see the intricacies of nature as we slow our rush from one destination to another. To think of those who walked before us. Remembering the people of the land, our land.

On the far wall of the gallery dirt is spread on the wall resembling a doorway, accompanied with the following land acknowledgement:

“We acknowledge and pay our respects to the ancestral stewards of this sacred land we reside on. This land has been a significant crossroad for many Indigenous people and their ancestors, and we honor their presence, spirit, and memory. We continue to recognize and appreciate their invaluable contributions to our communities.”


Eugene Tapahe: Hózhó + Art Heals, Weight Room Gallery, Brigham Young University, Provo, through Feb. 19

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