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Navajo memory aid drawing on paper showing three elegant Yei figures | Donald Ellis Gallery

Memory Aid Drawing

Arizona or New Mexico

ca. 1940

graphite and watercolour on paper

height: 8"
width: 10"

Inventory # S4229-2

Please contact the gallery for more information.

The Navajo people, who refer to themselves as Diné, share a complex belief system that emphasises the interrelatedness of all living things. Ceremonial life largely evolves around prayer offerings and an elaborate song ceremonial complex, termed “chants,” which are designed to prevent or cure illness and disease. Perhaps most famous amongst these are the Night Way and Mountain Chants, both intended to restore health to ailing individuals and maintain balance and harmony in the universe. As part of the healing process, the Medicine Man (or Hatałii) would perform sandpainting, creating highly sophisticated design patterns with a variety of coloured sand. Used to invoke the Holy People (or Yeibicheii), the paintings themselves are thought to become enlivened beings, and must be destroyed after their completion lest they pose danger to the community. More than 600 different design patterns are known to the Navajo, of which up to 30 may be included in a single ceremony. Since the potency of sandrawing depends on the quality of its execution, mistakes in the accuracy of the detail could inflict serious harm on the patient. In preparation for the chants and in order to help apprentices internalise these intricate design patterns, medicine men would often create memory aids on buckskin, fabric scraps and later on paper. Very few records of complete Navajo sandpainting exist due to their ephemeral nature. Memory aids thus offer unique insight into the spiritual practices of the Navajo Nation.

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