Three overlapping shows put the Madison-based artist’s work in context. (Above: Chemigrams from the “Sǫ’ (Stars)” series. Images courtesy of Dakota Mace except where otherwise noted.)
Moving from one section to another in artist Dakota Mace‘s show Nihá (For Us), up through December 21 at Arts + Literature Laboratory, requires viewers to change how they’re looking and what they’re looking for. That is in part because Mace uses a host of different techniques in her explorations of Indigenous cultures. As a member of the Diné (Navajo) tribe and a scholar of both textiles and photography, Mace wields everything from intricate glass beadwork to alternative photo-developing processes. Running through her work is an understanding that materials can create a strong sense of place, whether those materials literally come from the natural landscape around you or have more industrial origins, like the products of a photochemical company Mace collaborated with in Santa Fe while earning her undergraduate degree at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Six pieces in Nihá (For Us) use handmade paper, mounted over grey backing that emphasizes its translucence and varied thickness, criss-crossed with handspun sheep’s wool and, in one case, studded with fragments of abalone shell. On the opposite wall from these pale and delicate pieces are a series of large chemigram prints flooded with a chaos of black and red. At times these pieces, which harness the chemical reactivity of photo-sensitive paper, feel impenetrably dark, but once your eyes adjust, the interplay between the two colors explodes into roiling variations. “Beaded Study 2” combines cotton with incredibly fine layers of glass beads, and a series of smaller chemigrams called “Sǫ’ (Stars)” places traditional Diné symbols over austere washes of black and grey.
This powerful and varied solo exhibition is one of three art shows up around Madison that involve Mace: She also has a set of works included in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Wisconsin Triennial, up through February 16, and co-curated Intersections: Indigenous Textiles Of The Americas, up through December 6 at UW-Madison’s School of Human Ecology, where Mace works as a researcher for the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection in addition to her work as a photography lecturer in UW’s Art Department. Each show puts Indigenous art in conversation with contemporary fine art, countering the tendency of white society to either treat such work as “ancient or before time or pre-contact,” as Mace puts it, or bastardize it into “Navajo” jewelry and tchotchkes that have little to do with actual Indigenous culture.
“What I want for many of my exhibitions is for people to be able to take away a little better understanding of Diné culture, Navajo culture, but especially our close relationship to our beliefs as well as the landscape that we come from,” Mace says. “One thing that’s deeply embedded in a lot of our traditions is that everything exists in fours. We have four sacred mountains, four sacred colors, and we believe in something that’s called ‘Hózhó,’ which means ‘balance’ in Navajo. It has multiple meanings, but I use it for ‘balance.’ That’s what we always are looking for, is a certain type of balance. When I create pieces, I want people to be able to get a sense of that balance and to be able to say, ‘Now I understand this culture a little bit more,’ in comparison to just seeing faux-Navajo designs on everything and being like, ‘Oh, that’s Navajo.’ Nope, that is actually a kind of bad rendition of Navajo tradition and culture.”
Embedded in the traditional techniques Mace uses are bigger ideas about how one goes about creating art: “Diné weavers wouldn’t map out any of their pieces, and that’s something I definitely believe in, is to be able to get in front of the loom or get into a photo studio and just be able to start creating without really having an intention behind it.” In both creating her original work and curating the show at SoHE, Mace also wanted to highlight how people from different Indigenous cultures inspire each other and share ideas. For instance, during an internship a couple years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico, she got an up-close look at the influence of Diné weavings, brought to the region by traders, have had on Zapotec weavers. “A lot of those elements and designs, they kind of have taken from Navajo tradition and use it in their own work, but they have a deep appreciation for Diné culture,” Mace says.
Mace’s work never obscures the material or makes the viewer guess at how a piece was made. Instead, she lets us see both the rawness of the material and its painstaking manipulation. The show’s centerpiece, “Iʼííʼą́ągo (Sunset),” is not hung on the gallery walls but laid out flat on a table, to encourage visitors to lean in and get a more intimate look at the material and the process. It consists of two sheets of Navajo churro wool, one red and one a creamy tan, and on each is a raised “+” symbol made of tiny, densely arranged glass beads.
“I do a combination of photography, textiles, handmade paper, and beadwork, and the reason behind that is that all those materials are process-based,” Mace says. “It takes hours and hours to be able to create something, but I think that’s one of the most important things about art-making that kind of gets lost when people go to exhibitions, is the amount of time that artists spend to create pieces. That’s something I want to be able to bring out a little bit more, for people to be able to see my beadwork and be like, ‘Oh, how long did that take you?’ And it’s, like, close to 200 hours, but that’s part of the process of being an artist, and I think it’s really important that people understand that.”
Another through-line in Nihá (For Us) is the color red. It’s most overt, of course, in the large chemigram pieces, but it makes a subtler appearance in “Ni’ (Soil),” a vertical length of cotton with four squares of clear glass beads, interspersed with dots of red. Mace harnesses the color to refer to the literal material history of the color red in Diné art and to evoke how Indigenous people struggle with identity in a colonized world. Mace explains that she was especially thinking about the perverse race science known as blood quantum.
“The red comes from the cochineal, but red also references not only what’s considered blood quantum in native culture—how we are categorized and defined…so if you’re a certain percentage then technically you’re part of that nation,” Mace says. “That’s a big issue for my own personal history, just because on my own blood quantum paperwork or certificate of Indian blood, I’m only considered half even though I’m full. It’s a frustrating thing to be going through that, but it’s also like, why do we still practice that?”
Mace’s pieces in the Triennial, by contrast, each consist of crisp symbols over a blue background.
“As an artist, I only work with one color. So I recently ended my blue period or indigo period. Especially the Triennial pieces, that was the last end of that,” Mace says. “The reason why I do that, back to our traditions, is that we believe in four colors that are very significant, but I choose colors that are technically seen as traditional dyes or natural dyes. Indigo is used all throughout the Americas as a form of not only inspiration but also used as a material process. For the red, I used cochineal, which technically comes from Mexico and South America, but specifically Mexico, and I use that dye because it’s seen historically in the Southwest. Diné weavers, through early trading routes, were able to access the cochineal and they use it for a lot of their dye work.”
Across both shows, Mace explains, she repeatedly uses, varies, and re-contextualizes “the four symbols that pop up multiple times in any traditional Diné weaving. Each of those symbols references a certain part of our creation story or has a significance to a certain deity that we believe in. Those symbols hold a lot of meaning, and I think it’s really important to continue working just with those four symbols.”