3 May 2024

(Sacred Places)

Dakota Mace traces Diné ancestry,
stories, and culture


by Kate Mothes

The Navajo, or Diné, homeland, known as Dinétah, is marked by four sacred mountains: Blanca Peak, Mount Taylor, the San Francisco Peaks, and the La Plata Mountains. The reservation of Navajo Nation delineates only about a half of that area, which extends much further to the northeast and encompasses today’s political boundaries of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, known as the Four Corners.

The concept of four resonates throughout Diné culture, such as in the sacred colors representing four directions: yellow abalone embodies the west, white shell the east, turquoise the south, and jet black the north. These directions and their colors, the four seasons, and the first four clans associated with the mountains are deeply ingrained in Diné tradition and art.

In her multimedia practice, Dakota Mace draws on her own heritage, exploring her family lineage, community, identity, memory, and a sense of place. As a Diné woman, these are important aspects of my cultural beliefs and speak to my relationship with my Diné homeland,” the artist says. “Place is more than a physical location, it is finding balance within nature, the shifting of time and memory. The land tells these stories; through her memories, we share a close relationship with the places we call home. This balance holds us together, a constant movement of stories, ever-evolving with each generation.”

Mace explores archives of family photographs, Diné symbolism and ceremonial tradition, and stories passed down by elders for series like Distorted Landscapes, So’ (Stars), and Dahodiyinii (Sacred Land), from which another body of work grew, Béésh Łigali. The Dinétah landscape centers prominently in her enigmatic, almost spiritual compositions that often draw on symbolic shapes and glyphs, desert terrain, written documents, and portraits. Sequences of chemigrams, in which the artist paints chemicals onto light-sensitive paper, suggest abstract chronologies; a bold continuity between past, present, and future.

“The Diné hold a close relationship to our home, and each area has sacred significance and places of stories,” she says, sharing that a connection to ancestors and the power of the land is central to an understanding of their history and sense of being in the world. “Through these interrelated places, we never forget that we exist within a larger story, one that is part of a much larger living system that includes the water, earth, canyons, and plants. It is through these places that healing can begin.”

So’ I, 2019. 40 chemigrams, 4 x 6 inches each

In Distorted Landscapes, beaded geometric shapes are overlaid on black-and-white photographs of warped landscapes. “Each work represents America’s distorted views of what land they claim as theirs,” Mace says, “and how we, as Diné, are shifting the western narrative of what land means. For us, it is where our ancestors, memories, and stories lie hidden within.”

Dahodiyinii (Sacred Land) and Béésh Łigali further investigate themes of land, memory, and place. Portraits of Mace’s relatives and Diné elders are superimposed on blood-red backgrounds as a reminder of the U.S. government’s brutal treatment of Native Americans in the 19th century, particularly for the Diné in what became known as the Long Walk, when more than 10,000 people were forcibly removed to the Bosque Redondo reservation around Fort Sumner, in central New Mexico, known as Hwéeldi. Mace says:

It is a place of extreme hardship where many of my Diné ancestors were imprisoned from 1864 to 1868. During this period, many Diné perished and were unable to return to their home, and the only existing photographs erased our identity, romanticizing our pain. The stories remembered come from the elders, where each story was passed on from generation to generation. Many of these stories and the history of Hwéeldi were omitted from U.S. history books, furthering the effects of colonialism. While the stories existed, many elders chose not to tell these stories, believing that further harm could come from these memories. […] While the stories of Hwéeldi are withheld, and responses to such death and violence are not to be taken lightly, there is a need to carry these stories of resilience.

Each photograph in Dahodiyinii (Sacred Land) represents the lost stories of all Diné ancestors who were never recorded in Fort Sumner’s minimal records. Béésh Łigali explores customs and beliefs related to the sacredness of the number of four and the interconnectedness of land and history history passed down generation after generation, continually instilling the role of remembrance and perseverance for today’s generation and those to come.

Mace will have work in 5-10-100: Women Artists Forward at the James Watrous Gallery in Madison, Wisconsin, from May 24 to August 4 and Captured Earth at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, from May 24 to August 18. She’s working toward a solo exhibition titled Dahodiyinii at SITE Santa Fe scheduled to open in March 2025, and you can find more on her website and Instagram.

Chester Otero, Diné Elder, from Dahodiyinii (Sacred Places) series, 2021. Digital archive print, 30 x 36 inches
Na’neel’Zhíín (Dark-Colored Barrier), from Distorted Landscapes series, 2023. Archival giclée print and glass beadwork, 30 x 42 inches (framed)
Joe Mace, Diné Elder, from Dahodiyinii (Sacred Places) series, 2021. Digital archive print, 30 x 36 inches
Herbert Lewis-Diné Elder, from Dahodiyinii (Sacred Places) series, 2021. Digital archive print, 30 x 36 inches
Béésh Łigaii I, 2022. 40 chemigrams, 5 x 7 inches each
Tséyi (Among the Canyons), from Distorted Landscapes series, 2023. Archival giclée print and glass beadwork, 30 x 42 inches (framed)

All images © Dakota Mace

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