Native son

Artist Ray Valdez tells the story of his homeland and his people

Photo By David Robert

Ray Valdez, a tall man of Aztec heritage, has long black hair and eyes that say, “I have seen much and learned much. Let me tell you my story.”

Valdez tells that story in Native Journeys, an exhibition now on display at Silver State Gallery. His artistic tale weaves the complex fates of wilderness, wildlife and humankind. It weaves ancient ritual and modern rite. It weaves the openly pained past and the discretely troubled present of Native American politics.

From the eyes of someone rarely exposed to Native American culture and the political controversies that surround it still, this tale may be hard to understand. “Women’s Spirit” (giclee on canvas), for example, seems at first a simple portrayal of a tribal ritual. Indian women in native dress stand in the foreground, their backs to us. Above them spreads a serene, cloudless blue sky. A closer look reveals other Native Americans at a distance, also participating in the ritual. Someone in the crowd holds an American flag turned upside down.

“I painted the flag not as a racial statement, but to create awareness, so that people will stop and say, ‘OK, what’s not right with this country, with the government?’ “ Valdez says.

The inverted flag, Valdez says, calls attention to the difficult relations between the American government and the Native American peoples. It reminds us that America is not perfect and that we must continuously look toward change. Valdez says that when looking at the painting, one must not read the flag as a message in itself; one must also look to the feathers worn by the tribal women, which symbolize hope, reform and the triumph of goodness.

“If there’s something wrong, it’s about making it better … I’m totally grateful to be an American, but I’m not the kind of person who just sits back,” he says. “We need to strive for change.”

Valdez says that his art covers three major themes: Native American culture, as seen above, wildlife and the self-portrait.

Valdez’s “Self-Portrait” (giclee on canvas) reveals, quite literally, two different sides of the artist. The painting shows only a small part of Valdez’s face; his face and shoulder are turned to the right, as if he is moving away from the viewer, fleeing his own canvas. His eyes are already out of the picture—one can barely see the edge of his dark sunglasses. Valdez says that his diminishing form and averted gaze signal his own inner journey; he is retreating from the here and now to go searching for something higher, or deeper.

The canvas space left by Valdez’s diminished presence, however, is occupied with a large turquoise handprint. Many of Valdez’s paintings are marked with his handprint. Works with a red handprint signify “the red nation,” and pieces with a white handprint signify white people. Blue handprints signify what Valdez calls “the human factor,” and turquoise signifies “the sacred mineral.”

“Self-Portrait” displays a powerful substitution of symbol for self. By balancing his image with this “mark of humanity,” the handprint, Valdez is framing himself in a larger context, revealing his connection to the Earth, but also his kinship with native and non-native peoples everywhere.

Valdez’s personal story, like the story of his people, is complex and often difficult to understand. With a little patience, however, his message comes into focus, and we can see then how far we have come on our native (and non-native) journeys, and how far we still need to travel.