Dakota Mace, Diné Bé’ Iiná (The Diné Lifeway) @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 works, generally framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the office area, and the entry.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 10 digital archival prints, 2021, each sized 24×30 inches, in editions of 3+2AP
  • 3 digital archival prints of scanned chemigram dyed with cochineal, 2020, each sized 24×36 inches, in editions of 3+2AP
  • 2 digital archival prints of scanned cyanotype, 2018, each sized 24×24 inches, in editions of 3+2AP
  • 1 natural white cotton and wool with glass beadwork (in three parts), 2017, each panel roughly 23×42 inches, unique
  • 4 cyanotypes with glass beadwork, 2021, each sized 7×5 inches, unique
  • 1 glass beads hand-sewn onto cotton, 2018, 14×16 inches, unique
  • 1 arrangement of 40 chemigrams, 2019, sized overall 38×51 inches, unique
  • 4 digital archival prints of scanned cyanotypes, 2021, each sized 24×36 inches, in editions of 3+2AP

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: As the interest in previously marginalized photographic voices continues to broaden, expanding out to include much more diversity in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other identifiers than ever before, more notable work by overlooked Indigenous photographers is similarly starting to come forward.

For many, Indigenous photography (at least in the United States) remains defined by the late 19th and early 20th century work of photographers like Edward Curtis, Frank Rinehart, Carl Moon, and others, who documented the lives of various Native American tribes from the position of outsiders. That we haven’t moved forward much from that ethnographic vantage point in the century since, or more fully embraced the insider perspectives of contemporary Indigenous photographers and art makers, says that we’re way behind where we need to be and that we’ve got a lot of catching up and learning to do.

This show provides a sampler style introduction to the work of Dakota Mace, a Diné (Navajo) artist based in Madison, Wisconsin. Like many Indigenous artists, her work embraces the myths and traditions of the land and pays particular attention to the strong connections that bind ancestors, elders, and family; what is perhaps more exceptional is that she does so across a range of artistic materials and conceptual strategies, reinterpreting these linkages and resonances in unexpected ways.

In one line of thinking, Mace explores photographic methods that allow her to get closer to the land, and in some cases, incorporate it physically into her image-making process. Her intimate cyanotypes and chemigrams document native plants and wildflowers, and turn washes of water and chemicals into expressive abstractions that evoke the swirling arroyos and rocky expanses of her homelands. Some of these works have been infused with actual remnants of the land, including water and dust (which manifest themselves as fluid markings and dried salt crystals) and the red dye of cochineal, a dried local insect famous for its bright carmine color. The red works are dark, hot, and moody, like bloody memories, while those in blue are much cooler, recalling flows of water (waters which are now endangered by pipelines, mining, and other intrusions, in many cases) and the native plants that reside in those wet conditions. The works have a sense of searching, with Mace physically engaging with the photographic processes to pull out tenuous atmospheric connections between past and present.

Another group of Mace’s cyanotypes moves in a more graphic design direction, making images of symbols and patterns in crisp blue and white. In some of these, we can recognize woven lines and mountain motifs, and in others a cross form has been cut away and adorned with glass beads, the empty area in the center falling away and casting shadows underneath. This physicality then bridges to additional woven and textile works that incorporate similar patterns and colors, alternately evoking the interwoven realities of land, water, fire, and people and reimagining traditional creation stories.

Mace’s most recent works go on to combine and layer together some of these disparate approaches, placing chemigrams and graphic elements in conversation with a selection of black-and-white photographs of family members and Diné elders. These diptychs and triptychs build a mode of visual storytelling that connects a person with the place they live or another sacred location. In one work, a red tinted cyanotpe of wildflowers is matched with the weathered hands of Helen Nez, the patterns in her silver rings, on her printed shirt, and on her wrinkled skin matching those of the flowers in the desert. Her story is then deepened by a caption that explains that her land had been mined for uranium since the 1940s, and each of the flowers represents one of Nez’s eleven children who died from uranium exposure. In another work, an abandoned building at the Bosque Redondo reservation (the end point of the 450-mile Long Walk of forced relocation for the Navajo in the mid 19th century) is matched with a salty red-tinged abstraction that evokes the sparkles of the cosmos stained by blood and tears. By pairing portraits and landscapes with chemigrams, written stories, and other expressive elements, Mace ties the elements together into one integrated force, allowing her complex histories to expand beyond the literal.

It’s clear that Mace is seeking her own visual vocabulary to tell the stories of the Diné, and that so far, traditional black-and-white photography, alternative photographic processes, weaving, and graphic design all have a place in building up a unique set of aesthetics that is well matched to that task. This show feels like a unique voice in the process of coalescing, with perhaps one more bold set of cross-medium artistic risks required to synthesize the disparate parts into a singular vision. As a starting point, it’s certainly full of promising ideas.

Collector’s POV: The photographic works in this show are generally priced at $6500 each, with the large arrangement of chemigrams at $19500 and the smaller beaded cyanotypes at $3750. The woven works are priced at $9500 (single piece) and $30000 (three pieces). Mace’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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