BEYOND THE SANTA FE PLAZA, where history pulses and church bells ring, you climb the creaking steps to Tony Abeyta’s studio. As you ascend, the scents of oil paint, dust, and something like old leather infuse the air. It’s easy to imagine that you are breathing in Paris, Venice, or New York City—because if an artistic legacy were a scent, this would be it. Here, on the ancestral homeland of the Tewa people, Abeyta documents the landscape around him, using abstraction, vivid colors, and enormous canvases to tell a story as if the land, too, were a person living through uncertain times.
The youngest of three children, he was born into a distinguished family of Diné artists that includes his late sisters, Pablita and Elizabeth, and his late parents, Narciso and Sylvia Shipley Abeyta. Together, his relatives have excelled in painting, pottery, weaving, and silversmithing. Tony, an artist of national acclaim, works in mediums that include charcoal, oil, acrylic, and silversmithing from his homes in Santa Fe and Berkeley, California. His work has earned representation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, L.A.’s Autry Museum, and the Eiteljorg Museum, in Indianapolis.
For the first time, the family’s accomplishments as artists, as well as their personal and professional contributions to key moments in Indigenous history and the broader Native American art movement, are the focus of a museum exhibition. Abeyta: To’Hajiilee K’é, at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, in Santa Fe, includes more than 75 pieces that curator Andrea Hanley (Diné) presents as both a family dialogue and individual testimonies.
“The Navajo word k’é means family,” Hanley says. “Each of these artists has a distinctive style that interweaves autobiographical narratives and complex Navajo beliefs and imagery—these really rich cultural histories and explorations of art practice and storytelling. The work investigates intersections of culture and concept as the artists examine life on the Navajo Nation, as well as the world outside of the tribe’s four sacred mountains.”
To’hajiilee is a non-contiguous section of the Navajo Nation where the people who today are called the Cañoncito Band settled during Hwéeldi, the Navajo people’s 1863–66 imprisonment at Fort Sumner. During the Long Walk to that ill-fated “place of suffering,” people who either escaped or were left to die formed To’hajiilee, where Narciso Abeyta was born in 1918.
Tony calls his father’s birth year “an ambiguous time of not knowing what the future would be.” World War I had taken a global toll, and the Spanish flu was raging disproportionately through Native populations.
Narciso survived. In the late 1930s, he ran away to be with his friends at the Santa Fe Indian School, where the first part of the family’s artistic legacy took root. At the school, Narciso’s talents were spotted by Dorothy Dunn, an art instructor who had created the Studio School—an art program that trained the first cadre of great Indigenous artists, including Allan Houser, Pablita Velarde, Harrison Begay, and Oscar Howe.
During World War II, Narciso was stationed in Okinawa and, for a time, worked as a code talker. Suffering from shell shock, he was sent home, where he gave up painting for at least a decade before enrolling in the University of New Mexico to train under Transcendental painter Raymond Jonson. Re-inspired by art, he met Sylvia, a ceramic artist who had moved to New Mexico from Philadelphia. Together, they began a new chapter of life and of creative expression.
“I have one of his paintings, Lambs at Play, from 1948, and it doesn’t have any of the characteristics of his earlier work,” Tony says of a painting in the exhibit that represents his father’s return to making art. “It’s very awkward, very self-conscious, very timid. It appears there were some emotional impacts that influenced the art.”
Other Narciso paintings in the exhibit include a gouache on paper, Navajo Wedding at Canyoncito, which depicts his daughter Elizabeth’s wedding. It contains the colorful whimsy of Narciso’s work, which never completely left the “flat art” style that Dunn had encouraged in her students. But, where she had urged students to document traditional life, Narciso also fearlessly explored the tremendous changes that tribes confronted in the postwar era.
“It’s always been my theory that art functions on a really deep and spiritual level,” Tony says. “How do we heal from all of these things that go back to before my father was born? We are the direct descendants of relocation. With that comes an immense amount of Indigenous soul trauma. [Those experiences] were horrendous, difficult to even mention—losing everything you knew.”
Beginning in the early 1960s, many Indigenous artists began mixing a world’s worth of influences into their creativity and into political activism. Tony’s oldest sister, Pablita, was a self-taught sculptor and an integral player in changing national policy as a lobbyist for the Navajo Nation’s Washington, D.C., office, working as a legislative assistant to Congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell and as a staffer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She was also a part of the negotiation to hand over the art collection from New York’s Museum of the American Indian to the Smithsonian, which Hanley calls “an enormous and significant contribution to our people and our history.”
The clay sculptures by Pablita and Elizabeth in To’Hajiilee K’é blend sensual curves and incorporate leather and feathers, invoking Navajo women and mythology. “Elizabeth once said she was seeking the female part of the clay,” says Hanley. “She was really looking at the spiritual and universal strength of women.”
An abstract drawing by Tony, Seeds Dispersing, uses charcoal and ink wash on Hiromi paper to portray grayscale beings that appear both animal and human. They emerge from seed pods and plantlike imagery in a controlled chaos that creates a conversation about the interconnectedness of Indigenous people and place.
“No matter where you were born and raised, you have a home,” he says. “Even if you’re not there, you know you’re from there. When we talk about trauma and relocation, that drawing is about the concept that seeds are always tied to a place of origin, or a mythological birthplace. And when seeds are dispersed, they go everywhere. I looked at that as a metaphor of Native Americans, because we retain all the DNA, all the soul memory of who we are and where we come from.”
Exhibits like To’Hajiilee K’é are about what he calls the “great American Southwestern legacy.” It continues the story of ancestors who endured the Long Walk, his father’s service as a soldier, his family’s mentorship as artists, and more. “You look at everyone in this family,” Hanley says, “and they have all played this larger role in Native American history. They hold and protect this collective memory that we have through creativity, through agency, and through actions of, in a sense, cultural sovereignty.”
In documenting the land and mixing in subjects like climate change and resiliency, Tony says he is fulfilling an obligation to continue his family’s story—which now embraces his own children, Gabriel Steven Mozart Abeyta and Margeaux Jane Abeyta.
“These paintings are authentic, about my truth,” he says. “When I go out into nature, I can’t just enjoy a dragonfly. What are the rhythms of this landscape, how does the light fall on these bluffs and mesas, what happens when the rain actually hits the earth, what is my own emotional response to it? Sometimes it’s ominous and bold, sometimes it’s luminous and spiritual. There is a lot of story behind what I’m looking at.”