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December 5th, 2018

Reflections on “Na’ashjé’íí Asdzáá”: Part Three

In 2012, while attending the Maryland Institute College of Art, I enrolled in a performance workshop, co-taught by Joyce Scott.  Joyce Scott is an incredible woman and artist.  Her work lives in collections at the BMA (Baltimore Museum of Art), the PMA (Philadelphia Museum of Art), and Yale University to name a few.  In 2016 she was awarded the honor of being named a MacArthur Fellow, and on a personal note, I know her as an exuberant, kind, and hard working woman who wholly deserved it.

That class marked my first formal introduction to performance and was a real foundation for my appreciation of the act.  There were many lessons including body awareness and rhythm, but the most valuable lesson I learned was the importance of the audience.  The point that Scott really drove home was how a performance lives or dies through its engagement with the audience.  Without the audience, there is no performance, there is only play or action.  It’s that relationship between performer and viewer that determines the success of the work; the opportunity to connect with others that makes the piece meaningful for both parties. 

Watching Eric-Paul Riege perform is a very thought provoking act.  His slow, hunched movements relieve Riege of his youthful body and create something more elderly, more delicate, and more animal.  The noises from his outfits activate neighboring spaces and add personality to his identity.  When he performs, he looks and sounds both human and not.  And to see him transform physically between different outfits only encourages this transmutational, shapeshifting nature.  

First a man, then a creature, then a force of nature; always, however, diligently working.  His efforts, acknowledge the efforts of our human ancestors, who did not have sewing machines, or shovels, or even bikes let alone cars.  The patience to travel miles by foot or spend months weaving a rug instead of ordering one from a phone.  Riege engages his work patiently, and also calls on his audience to learn such patience.  

As an audience we join him for four hours and observe.  As an audience we walk with him outdoors, gingerly treading the same path.  As an audience we wait and watch, before again returning inside.  And finally, as an audience, we are offered a chance to add our own hand.  

In one of the final movements of his performance “Na’ashjé’íí Asdzáá,” or “Spider Woman,” Riege literally extends his hands to the audience through his hooghan.  Using a long piece of the same string, that make up the looms, which form the hooghan, Riege begins to weave.  Standing inside the circle and inviting audience members to stand outside, the loom becomes functional.  First, a knot is tied on the outer most edge of the loom.  Riege hands the long string to a participant who hands the string back to Riege, who hands it back to the participant, over and under and over and under again and again.  

It took thirty minutes for one string to make it through every thread of only one of seven looms.  With each loom being between seven and ten feet tall, it would take days to simply weave one to completion.  Multiple audience members took turns walking up, and passing back and forth to the artist in that half hour.  Engagement was only limited by willingness; anyone could walk up at any time to participate.  I myself was the last audience member to participate for the final stretch of the weaving.  I passed the string under the final thread before Riege tied the string off and left the loom to sway gently from his hands.

What’s important here is that Riege did not force anyone to do his work.  He did not call individuals out or even ask with words.  His actions were louder and clearer.  There was work to be done, it could not be done alone, and it required help.  But when you’re up there face to face with a man who’s charcoal covered body has started to run with sweat, it doesn’t really feel like work; it feels like communion.  The time passes more quickly and a sense of accomplishment grows inside you.  The silence as you both labor together isn’t uneasy, its natural. 

I read that Riege’s work takes a lot of inspiration from the women in his family; especially their practice of weaving.  I think he does them proud.  I think he continues a legacy of making which is genuine and meaningful.  I believe he goes further by giving his audience a taste of the careful work that goes into creating such beautiful garments and artwork.  We’ve already seen his outfits in motion, and finally we understand exactly how much it takes to weave one line in a loom.

“Na’ashjé’íí Asdzáá” is a humbling performance with a confident center.  The truth is, that there is much to be learned about Diné culture and weaving culture for the average viewer.  But rather than overwhelm the audience and create unnecessary division, Riege chooses to teach others through an opportunity to experience and learn. 

Written By: Louis Abbene-Meagley, SITE Santa Fe Education Intern
Edited By: Winoka Begay, SITE Santa Fe Indigenous Outreach Coordinator