Curator's Choice: The Horniman Museum

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The Independent Culture
In 1966 I watched Fred Stevens, a Navajo medicine man, create the Whirling Log sandpainting at the Horniman, skilfully streaming different coloured grains through his fingers onto a 7ft square bed of loose sand. We watched him start the painting from the middle, where the circle represents a lake with logs floating to the shore. On the logs stand a pair of Navajo deities, male (black) and female (white). The four other figures guarding the Whirling Log are the white Bringer of the Dawn in the east, the yellow Twilight Bearer in the west and the two hunchbacked Carriers of the Universe, who gave the Navajo their songs and painting.

The sandpaintings embody the religious beliefs of the Navajo and they would normally be used for such things as curing illness or ensuring a good harvest. Usually the painting would be made on the floor of the hogan (a log hut covered with earth) during the final days of the curing ceremony, at the start of winter, and then destroyed in a ritual, accompanied by the rhythmic execution of ripples in the sand and a series of haunting chants.

Fred Stevens finally agreed to let me attempt the preservation of the painting, although he missed out certain details, so as not to compromise his beliefs. Not surprisingly it must be my curator's choice at the Horniman, because of my personal involvement and its representation of the theme of World Heritage. Several years later, I had my first chance to visit Fred at his home in the Navajo reservation, but his deserved reputation frustrated our plans to meet: he was already on his way to Washington to meet the Vice-President.

David Boston is Director of the Horniman Museum, London Rd, London SE23; Mon-Sat 10.30am-5.30pm, Sun 2-5.30pm, free admission

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