"As soon as I signed the lease it was this feeling of, 'Holy shit, what did I do?' and it's been, 'Holy shit, what did I do?' since then," LE Brown shares over a third cup of coffee. Formerly of the interview-based blog Descent of Man , she now tells the tale of her journey to open East of West, a new gallery in Santa Fe's Siler Arts District that focuses on contemporary artworks created predominately by Middle Eastern artists who have migrated from their homes to other parts of the world.

"I don't place too much emphasis on borders because they're kind of arbitrary," Brown explains, describing how she picked the group for East of West's inaugural exhibition this Friday. "I want to show the movement of artists and how their experiences differ in different communities; how these artists have multifaceted identities and don't fit neatly into any one box."

Five artists, all of whom Brown found through Instagram, multiple degrees of separation (think friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend) and artist recommendations, are featured and linked through works that examine identity in light of how cultural tradition informs contemporary existence.

Artists include Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al-Lail, a Saudi photographer who resides in the UK and shoots layered photographs that explore identity; Madiha Siraj, a Muslim American artist living in Dayton, Ohio, who uses traditional Islamic geometry to create contemporary sculptures, installations, and multimedia paintings; and Maha Alasaker, a Kuwaiti photographer who now lives in New York City and focuses on the concealment of herself and others behind the veil and everyday objects.

Brown hopes these artists' works will set the tone for East of West to demonstrate the vast array of contemporary art from around the world, but she recognizes that not all people will welcome the aesthetic with open arms.

"I've had people say to me, 'Wow, you represent terrorists,' or question how I can support the oppression of women," Brown says, "which is totally ridiculous to me. I'm happy to take the brunt of that. Muslim folks get that every single day. I'd love to take that burden off of others, if that's possible."

Brown further envisions opening up the gallery for artists in residence, visiting curators and a public library filled with books about contemporary art of the Middle East (which will be accessible at the opening). Through these projects, she aims to transform the gallery into a community space for conversations that transform negative perceptions and bridge gaps between communities. "I feel that [the gallery] is a platform where I can work to support these communities," she tells SFR, "and if I don't do that, I'm not doing a good job."

East of West:
Inaugural Exhibition
6 pm Friday Dec. 15. Free.
East of West, 2351 Fox Road, Ste. 600, 570-7708

Zachariah Ben uses earthen pigment to create sand paintings, a ritual during Navajo healing ceremonies.
Zachariah Ben uses earthen pigment to create sand paintings, a ritual during Navajo healing ceremonies. | Courtesy Ellsworth Gallery


On the local front is Zachariah Ben, a Diné artist who practices sand painting, a medium in which natural materials such as sandstone, turquoise and semi-precious stone are used to create imagery of universal forces that demonstrate the interconnection of all beings. More than an art process, sand painting is a ritual performed during Navajo healing ceremonies.

Ben began learning sand painting when he was just 3 years old; his father, Joe Ben Jr., a renowned artist himself, taught him the art form. As he watched his father create images of medicine men, he realized by the time he was 5 that he, too, wanted to be one of the natural healers, or as he describes, "wizards." He began dancing and dressing up as Diné deities, and is still learning chants and sandpainting designs for healing ceremonies as part of his medicine man training, a process that can last a lifetime.

Ben's latest sand paintings are on view at Ellsworth Gallery and depict deities against cosmic skies formed from granular textures of sand. These grains have been carefully sprinkled onto boards by Ben, who rubs his fingers together to release natural energy into an image. "That is what art is all about," he declares. "Nature. What else is there?"

As he collects earthen pigment to create the paintings, Ben makes an offering to heal patients—but also, he says, to "heal the art world, because the art world is tarnished by commercial paints, commercial this, commercial that. Why not go back to the natural cycle?" Natural materials, he says, have gone through billions of years of life and death. "These colors that I use today have been cooking since the birth of time," he says, "the birth of Earth, the birth of the Universe."

But how do these works fit into the world of contemporary art? Ben
answers: "The dirt that you walk on is today. The sun that shines upon you, that is of today. That is modern. That is contemporary.'"

Ííkáh' Dííyííníí: Sacred Sands
Opening reception:
5 pm Friday Dec. 22. Free.

 Artist Demonstration with Zachariah Ben:
2-6 pm Wednesday-Friday
Dec. 27-29. Free.

Artist Q&A
Noon Thursday Dec. 28

Ellsworth Gallery,
215 E Palace Ave., 989-7900