Talking LANDSLICE with Artist Dwayne Manuel
If you’ve seen artist Dwayne Manuel (On’k Akimel Oʼodham) at work on the LANDSLICE installation during a recent visit to the Tucson Museum of Art, you probably noticed his impressive size. “After I graduated from high school I was going to do football, because I was playing football at the time,” said Manuel in a recent interview. “I was actually more into basketball. Then I went through a few injuries and that kind of set me back. I thought to myself, ‘What else can I do other than this?’”
Several of his teachers had encouraged him to study art because he was always drawing—he had been drawing all his life. His skill was apparent. “I decided ‘What the heck? I’ll apply to [the Institute of American Indian Arts] and see what happens.’ After that I kept going with higher education.”
It was during his time as a student at IAIA in Santa Fe, NM, that Manuel began to think of himself as an artist. “I started to find myself and I started to get the idea that I could sell work, that I could live off of work—make a living as an artist and express myself how I want to.”
Manuel had done some graffiti work as a teenager, and after he graduated in 2010 with his bachelor of fine arts degree he started creating commissioned murals. In 2014 he received a master of fine arts degree from the University of Arizona.
Manuel has done a lot of mural work, both as an individual artist and in collaboration with the indigenous aerosol art collective Neoglyphix. In these works, he combines old traditions with new techniques, blending contemporary aerosol aesthetics with imagery connected to his O’odham culture and heritage.
When it is completed at the end of September, LANDSLICE will include four murals honoring three mountains sacred to O’odham himdak (culture/way of life): Baboquivari, Catalina, and Quinlan. Manuel chose the subjects after learning about TMA’s efforts to guide visitors to cultivate new understandings and deeper meanings of the lands and people of the West. This starts with the land on which the museum is built—the original territories of the O’odham people. Manuel explained, “Talking with [Marianna Pegno, Curator of Community Engagement] about the direction the museum is going, I had the idea to do something to honor the land here and the original inhabitants of this area.”
Manuel spent a month doing research, planning, and preparing to execute the installation. Once he knew what he wanted to talk about in the paintings, he did online visual research, then pulled references from his library of designs and techniques. He visited Baboquivari, Catalina, and Quinlan and took his own photos.
Four sections of wall in Mooney Hall (the museum lobby) were selected to receive murals. Armed with measurements, Manuel created small digital drawings of his vision of the three sacred mountains and a basket design. He selected a color palette with bright purple and golden hues, referencing the tribal colors of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Each painting includes a swirl graphic, in blue or yellow, symbolic of a water design and in the three murals with mountains one can see a red pathway that represents encroachment and border issues on the Tohono O’odham Nation.
After a day spent measuring, marking, and masking edges with painter’s tape, Manuel began mixing paint (Nova Color, recommended by one of his University of Arizona professors because of the quality and fluidity of the paint). He began with the largest and most prominent of the murals, depicting Baboquivari—the most sacred place to the Tohono O’odham people and the home of I’itoli, the Creator and Elder Brother. Time-lapse videos of Manuel at work are available on the museum’s website.
Manuel travels once or twice a week from the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian community, northeast of Phoenix, to work on the installation. He divides his time between his art practice and teaching at the Tohono O’odham Community College. Although he seems hesitant to talk about it, he admits that he does think his success as an artist inspires his young students. “I’m teaching what I know, I’m teaching what I do. I can tell students my personal experiences of what works and what doesn’t work. I have the advantage because I’m doing it.”
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