We All Breath Air

“Will Wilson: Connecting the Dots”. SECCA Main Gallery Exhibition. On Display from June 16th to December 11th, 2022.


Kate Lacivita

8/21/20228 min read

At the SouthEastern Center for Contemporary Art (located in Winston Salem, North Carolina) there is a great gallery exhibition on display currently that helped me learn some new things about Native Americans during World War II.

Will Wilson is a Diné (Navajo) photographer. He earned his MFA in Photography from the University of New Mexico in 2002. His works are collected and displayed internationally. In this exhibition, Wilson is focusing on the Auto-Immune Response of over 500 Abandoned Uranium Mines (AUMs) located all along the Navajo Nation. Wilson is drawing attention not to the impact of the success of the Code Talkers, but the consequential aftermath of fissile material left behind in these mines.(1)

Let’s begin with a brief history of the Code Talkers. Coming into this I had actually not heard about the Code Talkers during my studies of WWII. Which is funny, because the beginning of the explanation on SECCA’s website starts with “Most Americans know the story of the Navajo Code Talkers…”(1) In which I responded, ”I actually have not heard of them sadly.” So, I did some research on them and it was quite fascinating! Even though this is not Will Wilson’s focus in his exhibition, I wanted to give some insight on the most notorious Navajo Natives during WWII, for readers who were like me.

The system for Code Talkers was created during WWI to combat sensitive information from getting into enemy hands but was not utilized until WWII. Most were recruited from places in the Oklahoma region in 1940, but spread out over numerous tribes. The first branch to complete their training was 29 US Marines in 1942.

Bake, Henry and Kirk, George. Navajo Code Talkers. Photograph. December 1943. U.S Marine Corps/National Archives and Records Administration.

There were two different types of codes established:

  • Type 1 was 26 Navajo terms to spell out the English alphabet. The letter A for instance was ”ant”, or wo-la-chee.

  • Type 2 was more complex and used words that were directly translated into English from Navajo terms. 200-400 words were developed. These words were not original to the Navajo language and therefore totally new words. An example being the word for Submarine, which was best-lo or “iron fish”(2)

This operation was completely classified as secret military information all the way until 1963 when it was declassified and made public. Because of the complexity of the words, as well as the very small group (compared to other languages known by people) of Navajo native speakers this code was unbreakable to foreign enemies. Even the Japanese Chief of Intelligence was unable to crack the code (and they were really skilled at doing just that). These intelligent Code Talkers were not recognized for their work during post war hoopla. It wasn’t until 2001 that 36 surviving members were given the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement. There were more members alive, but these were the ones that got

the awards. (3)

The Abandoned Uranium Mines (AUMs) was another piece of history that I was unaware of when coming into this exhibition. So, naturally, I needed to know the context in which the artist was working out in order to receive the message he is trying to portray in his work. Because these mines were so important to the contextualization of the exhibition I did a lot more reading on these. A lot of it was medical and political nonsense, but the main gist of what happened I’ll mention below. If you’re interested in reading more about these mines, the resources I used are at the very bottom.

From 1944-1986 nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore was extracted from native lands, 500 mines being in the Navajo region. Many of the Navajo people lived close by the mines and worked in a range of a few months to several years in these mines, getting paid in a range from $0.81-$1 an hour. Due to the language barrier and education around exposure, most did not know the causes of these mining conditions around them. Although these mines have been closed since 1986, the aftermath of these mines and the not-so-ideal circumstances around safety and education remain in effect to this day. (5/6)

(6)Some effects of prolonged exposure from air and drinking water include:

  • lung cancer

  • bone cancer

  • impaired kidney function that left untreated leads to cancer

The aftermath of this radiation continues today, although it is less severe than earlier years due to EPA clean up solutions that have been underway since the early 1990‘s. However, the lands are still polluted and the air quality is still not great.

Shown are two text cards from the gallery, by Will Wilson about his art and exhibition that I also took some information from to better understand the work around me.

Encyclopedia Britannica , Inc./Kenny Chmeilewski. Navajo Code Talkers.

National Library of Medicine

Now, let's get into the exhibition itself!

Once you go inside the Main Gallery you are greeted by the showcase wall that introduces you to the exhibition artist and title itself. I enjoy this part of the wall space because it is the first thing the eye is drawn to. There are also small seats sitting in front of it in a figure 8 pattern that are organic and add simple functionality to the main space, which I enjoy. I do think that this wall space should have had more context to the main exhibition outcome (or get-to-the-point-of-it-all) explanation. Like previous exhibits have had on this wall. However, the piece they chose speaks for itself in a way, so I can see why the artist might have thought differently.

The piece on this wall space continues to stand out to me in my mind even as I am now home (well, at another gallery currently) writing about the experience. The piece has no title card, nothing explaining it or any other pieces in the gallery that are similar. (Well, there is one piece but I will get to that a little later on).

The reason I love this work the most is the way it draws your eye to it immediately.

Even if you are just walking by the gallery. It absolutely demands your attention and keeps it. Will Wilson is the main "character" or “protagonist” in his works of the "AIR: Auto Immune Response" and as his character looks directly into the eye level of the viewer he is looking directly at you. Challenging you to see the harsh reality of what has happened to a land he has grown up in and loved for his whole childhood. There is something mystical and also corporeal about the environment in which the two men stand. Or, in which the two of the same person stand side-by-side as they share a respirator mask.

As I said before, there was one other piece in the gallery that was close to this one. Auto Immune Response 6 has this same ephemeral character, covered in blood/mud/water standing in a vast and dirty lake wearing a respirator. This photograph I was drawn to as well for the feeling of isolation, yet knowing one's self and mission, came to me. The photograph seems to be a mixture of stitched together photos of various times of day, or of slightly different angles and light exposure (as do most all his landscape images are) makes it real and suddenly not real altogether. The vast nature of the environment in which the man stands is beautiful, desolate, expansive and briny. You almost forget that the figure is standing to the left, as your eye is drawn to the center of the photo to the post light up by the brightest part of the photo. It almost makes you forget humans still reside in the area. It is only until you look to the left and see another human being that you remember that this is a place people need in order to survive.

Auto Immune Responce 6. 2004. Archival Pigment Print.

One of the other two main pieces in the gallery that I loved the most were the steel sculptures that displayed a single light source. These are to represent the "Gadget" used during the Trinity nuclear test in 1945. Wilson uses it in his interpretation as a harbinger of light, warmth and hope rather than a bringer of destruction. They both are interesting to walk around and when you look at any angle in the gallery the light is always shining bright, like a North Star guiding you back to safety. If I were able to touch it, I would have climbed up and about the structures and imagined myself in the vast land the protagonist of Wilson's story is viewing. What would I see and feel then? What would I think as I came down the structure? Would I be changed from what I saw?

Another interesting piece that made me stop was a 10 minute long drone video of the Mexican Hat Disposal Cell in Utah. Upon watching it you start at the entrance of a DO NOT ENTER zone. This is a site of pollution and radiation spillage just north of the Dine community of Halchita, Utah. Once was used as a major cultivation area. You are then taken to the center of it all. Here, you see a small stone plaque that resembles the top of a tomb stone. It is no more than 2ft x 2ft in length. From here, the drone slowly moves upwards to show the expanse of this area that is unavailable to anyone. Once a lake here, then a mine, now hundreds of thousands of stone pebbles. As the camera pans up and out the plaque becomes so tiny and lost within these thousands of pebbles. It was massive. The cell is on 119 acres, 68 of which contain these pebbles.

These rocks serve the purpose as to make sure that rapid erosion does not occur underneath them (where all the radiation protection systems are put into place. I read the fact sheet that had everything on it, and boy that was a lot. Just in case you're interested, there is the link to the PDF file HERE.

The video itself, however, was beautiful. The multitude of colors that came from the rocks below pixelated together to form what looked like a new body of water, with one tiny stone in the center (the plaque) floating on top. It was horrible and mesmerizing all in one. The accompanying information and various photographs beside the monitor complimented the video nicely.

To end it all, you walk to the "other" side of the main gallery (a wall separates the two sides) into another area of Will Wilson's works that seem totally separate from what you just experienced on the former side. Here, you feel the homage and honor placed upon many portraits of various Native American peoples descended from the tribes associated in the southwest US. All feel as though they are "Tintype" photographs. The luster and contrast of grays and blacks were outstanding in portraiture photography I have seen lately. None really stood out to me in an impactful way, but nonetheless I thought they were gorgeous.

If you're in the area of Winston Salem and can go to the SECCA museum, I would recommend seeing this exhibition. I enjoyed the informative nature of it, as well as bringing to light issues in areas I have not heard anything about. It shines light on things from the past, bad things, that still have consequences on us today. However, Will Wilson was able to spin these issues into something terribly beautiful, while igniting the curiosity of learning more and potentially going out and doing something to benefit the world, rather than harm it any further. To look into one's self, heritage and surroundings. To ponder why we are here in the world and what can we do to make a meaningful impact on others. Most importantly, how do we fit in the scenario and what part do we have in the play that is: life.

Mexican Hat Disposal Cell Monument Halchita Utah, Navajo Nation.