Harrison Begay (Haskay Yahne Yah) (American, Navajo, born 1917),
Untitled (Scene from Enemyway Ceremony)
, ca. 1960
tempera on paper, 22 3/8 x 30 1/2, 56.83 x 77.47 cm
Museum purchase with funds provided by Collector's Choice V, 1992.24
Here Begay depicts a scene from the curing ritual known as Enemyway. Originally a war ceremonial conducted to protect returning warriors from the ghosts of slain enemies and to restore personal, familial, and spiritual harmony — the basic Navajo concept of hózhó —Enemyway today is frequently offered for individuals believed to have been made ill through exposure to non-Navajo persons and customs. Begay's beautifully balanced composition artistically embodies hózhó, just as the ceremony he depicts is meant to restore it.
Harrison Begay was trained in the 1930s at the Santa Fe Indian School Studio, where he was encouraged by the studio's founder, Dorothy Dunn, to seek subject and stylistic inspiration in his Navajo heritage. Through the years he has adhered to Dunn’s advice, painting scenes of traditional Navajo life — weavers at the loom, sheep and shepherds, horses and riders, desert wildlife, and ceremonial dances. Begay’s paintings are distinctive, characterized by a delicacy of line and color, simple but realistic detail, and a sense of warm serenity.
This fine rendering appears to depict an aspect of the three-day curing ritual known as Enemyway. Originally a war ceremonial conducted to protect returning warriors from the ghosts of slain enemies, Enemyway today is frequently offered for individuals who are believed to have been made ill through exposure to non-Navajo persons and customs. Like many other Navajo ceremonies, it is intended to restore personal, familial, and spiritual harmony. Although much of the Enemyway ritual is private, involving only the patient, the healer, and other selected individuals, some portions are public. These are attended by many friends and relatives, whose presence signals communal solidarity in support of the patient and his or her family.
The focal point of this painting is a circle of men, arms entwined, their open mouths indicating that they are singing one of the many songs specific to this ritual. In the center of the circle stand a young man and woman. He is the drummer for the song and carries the Enemyway drum, a pottery vessel partially filled with water and topped by a taut buckskin drumhead; the drumstick is a slender stick bent into a loop. She carries the rattlestick essential to Enemyway, made of juniper, feathers, and other materials. Like many of Begay's compositions, this one is beautifully balanced, reflecting his artistic preference, perhaps, as well as the basic Navajo concept of hózhó so central to Navajo religious thought. Hózhó means everything that is good (as opposed to evil), encompassing notions of beauty, order, harmony, well-being, and blessedness. Begay's painting artistically embodies hózhó, just as the ceremony he depicts is meant to restore it.