The Sweet Smell of Home: The Life and Art of Leonard F. Chana External link

Leonard F. Chana, Susan Lobo, and Barbara Chana


University of Arizona Press

The study of indigenous American art has been trickling into the mainstream of the field of American art history very slowly, but this artistic production remains a sideline to the dominant narratives constructed about art in this part of the world (as indigenous art does, too, in most other parts of the world). Works like the book under review here help to provide needed documentation of art by indigenous peoples and provide an engaging format for specialists in other aspects of American art to approach this work and to begin to integrate it into larger narratives. The primary virtue of this book lies in its first-person account of the stresses, traditions, and aspirations of indigenous culture in the late twentieth century.

The Sweet Smell of Home External linkhas two parts: an opening section consisting of two forewords and two introductions running to 27 pages, followed by 121 pages (with many images) of the transcript of the artist Leonard Chana’s (1950-2004) discussions with the editors, recorded during his life and later transcribed and lightly edited for publication. Generously illustrated with large, full-color reproductions of Chana’s drawings and paintings, which are usefully placed on the same page or within one or two pages of their discussion in the text, the book’s most memorable feature is its visual richness. The image captions are spare, however, giving only the title; media and dates are given in the list of illustrations at the end. Rebecca Dobkins’ foreword provides a straightforward and contextual interpretation of Chana’s work, a very welcome addition to the volume, but regrettably only two and a half pages long. Much more of this analysis and contextualizing would better help readers—especially those with little knowledge of the O’odham or non-indigenous cultures—understand and appreciate these compelling images. This kind of contextual discussion would also help the scholar of indigenous and modern American art to understand Chana’s place not only in the tradition of O’odham art but in the larger arena of twentieth century folk art. Nonetheless, Dobkins’ claim that Chana’s art is “intended to instill pride and motivate action, thus catalyzing better tomorrows,” (xiii) should ring true to most readers by the end of the book.
Chana’s wife’s introduction is thoughtful and heartfelt, but it could have used another round of editing. She also hints at a larger context for Chana’s work—the market and the professionalization of artists—that is seldom broached elsewhere in the volume. She writes, rather enigmatically, about Chana’s friendship with fellow artist-photographer Al Peyron, who provided a sort of atelier and social club for like-minded artists: “There, among peers, art was discussed and critiqued, techniques shared, price value decided, marketing information shared, camaraderie and mischief engaged in” (xviii). One wonders about how these artists decided “price value” and exactly what kind of “mischief” they got themselves into. Passages like this throughout the opening sections leave a great number of questions that are not fully addressed in the interviews with the artist and that suggest, in a positive light, further research for scholars.

In these opening sections of the book, the authors are inclined to hyperbole and to romanticizing Chana’s artistic legacy. The introductory sections often read as hagiography rather than art historical scholarship, but this is perhaps not entirely to be regretted, especially as the words come mostly from those close to him. The valorizing language suggests the chord that Chana’s life and art touched with those around him and is, in that sense, an appropriate tribute to his person and work, even if a more distanced observer wonders what a less biased perspective might say.

The main interest and value of the book comes in the transcribed interviews with Leonard Chana. Although the transcript preserves an authentic voice, it is sometimes hard to follow the drift or significance of the stories Chana recounts, other than the fact that they are interesting anecdotes of his life. This book is not a complete autobiography and large gaps make it a choppy narrative. The editors make a few suspect decisions when it comes to Chana’s language—for instance, transcribing “waay” with the doubled “a” instead of the italicized way to emphasize stress in Chana’s speech. There are sections, like the passage on page 97, that are really indecipherable. In those instances the editors could have provided a brief explanation in the sidebars that are used occasionally to alert the reader to an abrupt change in topic in Chana’s narrative.

Despite these shortcomings, the text is very readable and accessible to non-specialists. All readers will delight in Chana’s recollections and thoughts about his art. Chana’s art tells stories through images—a mode of art-making that is not part of his people’s traditions, but that he found suited to the communal and spiritual values he wanted to express. In most cases, Chana never explains detail for detail what his pictures represent. They remain somewhat enigmatic, especially many of the drawings that incorporate personal or communal symbols or images that are not readily understood by outsiders. Yet, as in all good art, Chana turns this indeterminacy and vagueness to his advantage by creating seductive, often sensuous images that pull the eye from one area to another and invite prolonged viewing.

Chana’s work shows a generally consistent style, though some works (especially figures 41, 47, 74) show Chana exploring variations and new stylistic possibilities, perhaps influenced by imagery from other traditions, though he never delves into this topic very far. Some of his most compelling images are the drawings created with the technique of stippling—making an image with small dots or very short dashed lines. Chana’s descriptions in chapter 10 about four of his drawings dealing with his addictions and recovery are the most richly symbolic and moving, and they are, of course, his most personal revelations. They are also some of the most stylistically accomplished and polished illustrations in the book (figs 51-54). Unfortunately, the editors do not reproduce any works by the influences that Chana mentions, which would greatly aid those interested in his style and technique to compare and contrast his methods with those of his mentors (Chana mentions only Van Gogh and Michelangelo).

Chana’s art is perhaps best summed up in the image illustrated in figure 27, The Way to Make Perfect Mountains. There is a happy distortion of perspective and atmospheric effects to suggest the power of the medicine men and their control of nature’s vast elements—here, mountains. The main figure is “moving it over so they [the O’odham] could have enough room to live and to plant their corn and plants to survive on.” It depicts an older era when, Chana claims, “their belief is stronger in what they do, [so that] … things come alive: the ground, and the air and the clouds, the animals” (37-38). Despite the lack of discussion of artistic context, the book provides a glimpse of an indigenous art of the late twentieth century that draws upon realist and fantasy elements of modern Western art. A bibliography or bibliographic essay situating his work and life within the scholarly literature on indigenous art would have been a useful addition. Yet, as a primary document of Chana’s thoughts and life, the book will be valuable for future scholars not only of the Tohono O’odham people and their culture, but of indigenous and American art more broadly. It provides one small but useful piece to help scholars construct a more inclusive and expansive view of modern American art.

Reviewed by Paul Ranogajec, CUNY Graduate Center

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