The word "desolate" takes on a whole new meaning when you're driving down Highway 285 north toward Cities of Gold. The air feels drier, short commutes seem longer and the roadside businesses (a myriad of liquor stores, pop-up fireworks retailers and of course, the Pojoaque Pueblo's casino) stand out like sad monolithic tributes—not to the gloriousness of Native history past, but its sad mainstream present.
It's in this environment—which he describes as "a magical place"—that 27-year-old Ehren Natay resides.
A trained musician and jewelry maker, Natay forayed into the visual art realm in 2005, and, since then, has used the medium as an outlet to forge his own identity.
"You've gotta look at the past and from there, constantly try to create," Natay says, sitting in the living room of his adobe studio.
Selected as one of three early-career artists to be offered a weeklong residency in the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts' The Rising Artists Project, the six pieces he's preparing for the show challenge the historical norm.
“For a long time, [Native arts] have not been evolving. It’s been stuck in this world that it has been since the beginning,” he says he says in a matter-of-fact way.
In contrast, Natay's world blurs the lines of the traditional, and marries it with the modern iconography of his mixed race upbringing: His father is Navajo and Santo Domingo ("rival tribes," he points out), and his mother is of Irish and German descent.
"I'm constantly trying to figure out, 'OK, what images am I allowed to use, being that I'm half-white and half-Native?' I don't want to just make art because it's Indian, or because it looks Indian," he reflects; "sure, it will look Indian, but it'll also be half pop culture."
That inherited duality is ever-present in Natay’s work, and transpires into his everyday life. He’s performed with Dancing Earth (along fellow Rising artist Jaque Fragua) and is a member of local hip-hop outfit Line of Sight. Sculptural pieces like “Defeat”—a wearable copper warrior mask adorned with buffalo teeth mounted on found wood— adorn his bedroom walls, and next to his front door, a large Terminator action figure is proudly displayed in a sanctuary-style niche he calls El Santuario de Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A work in progress titled "Traditional Gaming" takes up most of the breakfast bar. In it, ancient symbols are reinterpreted as Pac-Man characters.
The ghosts, Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, are replaced by Yebache faces inside a kiva that opens towards the east; instead of cherries, there's watermelon; and a modern take on the bee-plant (also known as Navajo spinach) is the pellet-munching protagonist.
"It's kind of playful, but at the same time, I want to raise some questions about our society; American society," he says.
"It's not our fault that it happened this way. I think that there has to be some recognition to what's been done, and we have to overcome feeling like we're the beaten-down Native."
Despite being the lone Santa Fean in residency, he brushes off any pressure that comes with the distinction.
"I want to represent who I am. I have friends that are just like me, Native kids that grew up in Santa Fe High, and that are out to open up gaps from both sides."
Expectations, he says, are out the window.
"I find that when you're expecting to do well at a show, you're always going to be proven wrong. I'm just going to be open to whatever comes along; somebody might approach me and say, 'Hey, I've got a comic book and I want you to do the cover art.' Who knows?"