Young artist addresses diabetes, obesity through sugar project

By Shondiin Silversmith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, December 6, 2012

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(Courtesy photo)

TOP: This multimedia installation called, "The Sugar Project: Modern Day Navajo Monster," was created by Chantell Yazzie, 19 and a student at Calvins College in Michigan.

SECOND FROM TOP: Chantell Trista Yazzie wanted to address the high rates of diabetes and obesity among the younger generations of Navajo. She created a multimedia installation called "The Sugar Project: Modern Day Navajo Monster."

C hantell Trista Yazzie wanted to send a powerful message about the dangerously high rates of diabetes and obesity among the younger generations of Navajo.

And what better way to do this than to use the culprit itself to express this concern?

That thought perhaps was what came up in the mind of the 19-year-old student at Calvins College in Grand Rapids, Mich. when she decided to use granulated sugar to produce a multimedia installation she titled, "The Sugar Project: Modern Day Navajo Monster."

Through this project, which is surrounded by glass, Yazzie showed gripping images of a human torso topped with a skeleton-like head – X's replace the human eyes, mouth and heart.

Her project was made of sugar because she wanted to show how the people of the Navajo Nation were being affected.

"It's very easy and accessible to get in large quantities," Yazzie said during a telephone interview of her main reason for using sugar.

"I am kind of scared for the Navajo people," she said.

Her inspiration came from being home on the Navajo Reservation and seeing that many kids only had access to food from the convenient stores.

This art installation "was a calling out to the younger generation saying 'we need to change,'" she said.

The glass surrounding the work represents a "glass coffin," she said, because it plays on the idea of death.

Of the piece, Yazzie said that she drew a male and female back-to-back because she wanted to portray the relationship between them as being distorted as a result of their desires for sugar.

"They're not working together anymore and that part essentially represents the culture," she said.

"The man and woman essentially are the foundation of the Navajo family and by being back to back they're in disagreement," she said. "The foundation of starting a family and passing down learned culture is lost due to this imbalance of the relationship."

Yazzie said the reason why she chose to replace the eyes, mouth, and heart of her human figures with X's is because she "wanted them to symbolize kind of blindness and silence as a result of the effects of sugar and addiction.

"Sugar equals death and therefore all anyone sees or speaks of is death. Kind of dark but it's a real truth," she added.

On the outside of the glass windows are art pieces that include pictures of Navajo ways of life including cooking, butchering, traditional clothing and children.

Yazzie said the baby in the center of the piece represents the next generation.

"Our identities are going away and we have to fix ourselves before (it gets) to the little ones," she added.

Next to her project, a poem is displayed that explains her work.

"Long ago, the Holy People predicted that a monster would take over the Navajos. One after another, this monster ate away their faces. It gnawed away Navajo identity. Everything turned from light to dark. Words ceased to exist.

"The holy people begin to cry. Sugar is our monster. A killer claiming Navajo lives."

Of the entire package, Yazzie said, "I hope they get the message that change needs to happen now. It's art that sends a message."

She said she wants to continue making these types of pieces related to health issues. Yazzie said she is planning her next piece now, which will focus on smoking.

Yazzie is originally from Heart Butte, N.M. and double-majoring in social work and studio art.

She is Towering House, born for Bitter Water. Yazzie has been drawing since she was 13 and is also a photographer.

Yazzie's work can be viewed on YouTube by searching, "The Sugar Project: Modern Day Navajo Monster."

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