High atop a scissor lift in Oakland, wheat-pasting a 25-foot wide upside-down American flag, Chip Thomas takes pride in his role as a provocateur. But put the 61-year-old photographer and street artist back on Native American land, where wounds both mortal and spiritual remain, and he earnestly resumes his other position: a healer.
By day, Thomas is a primary care physician at the Inscription House Health Clinic, located in the western part of the Navajo Nation, where he lives. In his free time, Thomas installs massive photo murals on and off the reservation, depicting his Navajo neighbors — from sheepherders to grandmothers.
“Especially on the reservation, the work is a conversation,” says Thomas. “I’m trying to help create an environment of wellness within the community."
When Thomas moved to the Navajo Nation in 1987, he didn't expect he'd be calling it home 30 years later. But he fell in love with the Four Corners region and its people, and began capturing those feelings in his photographs of everyday Navajo life. He also learned about the history of mineral extraction on the lands, from coal to uranium mining, and its staggering, fatal effect on Navajo workers — many of whom Thomas has cared for in the clinic.
Much later, while traveling in Brazil, Thomas saw photographs transformed into large-scale street art in the favelas of Rio. He realized his photographs could not only document the landscape, but become a part of the landscape as well.
Now, working under the moniker Jetsonorama, Thomas regularly celebrates the beauty of a people whose land has been mined and poisoned, cut up and sold off. Blowing up and wheat-pasting his black and white photos onto the sides of merchants’ stands, abandoned buildings, and mobile homes, Thomas creates work that allows community members to see themselves represented at monumental scales.
Bringing those images outside of Navajo Nation — most recently, to a wall-sized installation in Oakland for last year’s Museum of Capitalism — and to Galeria de la Raza’s digital mural — helps disseminate knowledge of the people Thomas photographs, and their resilience, to the world at large. -- Text by Sarah Hotchkiss