Chantelle Trista Yazzie sends a powerful message and call to action in her multimedia installation "The Sugar Project: Modern Day Navajo Monster."
The 19-year-old Navajo artist depicted compelling images of human torsos topped with skeletal heads, which offer ominous warnings about an entire nation’s future. Made with granulated sugar and marked with Xs in place of eyes and mouths and even heart, these chests and skulls suggest that excessive sucrose is a frightening agent of death. The images of blinded and muted Navajos sound an alarm from the grave: overconsumption of sugar is killing the people.
Photographs of everyday Navajo people are covered by heaps of sugar that overwhelm them, symbolizing the burden of sugar addiction, the weight of obesity and the gravity of the diabetes epidemic in Indian country. Words scroll across the video, including the line, "One after another, this monster ate away their faces."
Yazzie is a Navajo photographer and artist, as well as a blogger for Wellbound Storytellers. She is originally from Heart Butte, New Mexico and is currently studying social work with a minor in studio art at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She credits her exposure to the art world and appreciation of her artistic abilities to her grandmother, Lucy Yazzie, 80, and her aunt, Bonnie Yazzie, both "great Navajo weavers," she said. "My aunt says, 'Your hands tell a story, take care of them and use them.'"
Yazzie answered some questions from Indian Country Today Media Network about her multimedia project and explained the "monster" that has “gnawed away Navajo identity”.
What inspired or compelled you to produce this gripping installation?
My parents are both prediabetic, and I worry about them. I love them and want them to be in my life for a while longer. I never met one of my grandmothers because she died from diabetes. I also know the Navajo Nation has a huge problem with diabetes and obesity on the reservation. I feel a video that is powerful and straight to the point is the only way people will see sugar and foods high in fat are essentially killing them both physically and culturally.
Can you explain the name of your project and the chilling story told in the video?
I have been learning about the creation story of the Navajo people from books and my grandmother and aunt, and in the story it was said the Holy People released monsters on the land to make sure Navajo people stay in line. Some of these monsters were hunger, thirst and lice. These were designed to help us, so we had to work to satisfy hunger and thirst and stay clean to avoid lice. I used this concept of “monster” to show the Navajo people that we have created our own monster and, slowly, it is killing us, and now we have to work with one another to kill this monster. The last part of the video merely states that we need to take control of our bodies before we leave our children and the next generation—[depicted by] empty frames.
What do the following lines in the video mean to you?
"No longer were man and woman together."
With the creation of this monster, relationships aren’t what they used to be. The greed and desire for sugar is much too great and exceeds the desire to maintain and cultivate relationships. It is said in the creation story that man and woman need to be together for the Navajos to flourish. I feel sugar is coming in between relationships and disturbing this balance of relationship which thus distorts what it means to be a Navajo.
"One after another, this monster ate away their faces."
I feel sugar is eating away at the core of Navajo identity. It is changing the beautiful faces of the Navajo people and creating faceless, skull-like creatures. The hunger for sugar in foods is changing the people.
"Words ceased to exist."
By words I meant words that express affection. Words like “I love you” and “I care for you.” There are few words for "love" in the Navajo language, and usually these are taken very seriously. I am afraid these words will be misused for material things like sugar. These precious words will disappear or be used in the wrong context. For instance, a grandmother might start saying, “I love you, sugar” instead of “I love you, my grandchild.” This is my biggest fear.
What was the process of creating "The Sugar Project: Modern Day Navajo Monster" like?
I had envisioned this project for a long time now. My sketchbook had a lot of what I called “The Sugar People” who were characters I created. My friend told me I was turning into an artist and that she was quite afraid of what I might do with these “Sugar People.” It did not take long for the idea to form; I always knew what I wanted to do and how I wanted to go about it. It took me about two days to do the installation. I worked in that basement for hours on both days. It was kind of an addiction. I did not want to stop.
Do the Xs on the skull-like figures and glass mean sugar equals death?
Sugar essentially will be the death of the people both physically and culturally. As I stated before, it is essential for elements of the Navajo culture for man and woman to be together. Without this balance a lot of things could go wrong. In this case, I am portraying just that. Families are torn apart and people begin to die off. The language disappears, which essentially kills the essence of what it means to be a Navajo. I think both sugar and addiction are the monsters. I tried to depict sugar as being this beautiful, sparkly incentive in my photos and art piece. It does draw you in and it does make food more appealing.
Can you explain the powerful use of sugar as a medium in your installation, which is designed in an almost coffin-like space?
I chose sugar because it had a great texture and was fairly easy to work with. Sometimes artwork can be hard to interpret, so I wanted to make sure people would get the message that sugar is a killer to the people. I wanted my artwork to be straightforward and direct. The use of sugar depicts, to me, at least, that it is readily available and easy to get in large amounts.
What, if anything, do you do to stay healthy and prevent or control diabetes in your own body?
I love to dance. I don’t like to do it in front of anyone, but I love doing it! Usually my roommate goes to work and during that time I boogey! My favorite song to dance to right now is Don Omar’s "Danza Kuduro"!
Is there anything else that you want to say to ICTMN readers?
I just hope that I can convey this message as accurately as I can to as many people as possible. I love my people with a passion. I love where I am from, the stories, the traditions, and I want my kids to see the beauty in everything Navajo. I don’t want to leave empty frame spaces anymore.