What is the role of the artist: storyteller, activist, documentarian? In this time of ever-increasing globalization, complete with rising concerns about our rights and our future, the lines between roles continue to blur. As artists seek to create works that will appeal to many, they also find themselves exploring personal identities, an artistic pursuit that may lead to many paths. Denae Shanidiin is one such artist traveling along these varied paths. Through her work exploring her Native American heritage, she finds herself filling several roles of the artist. In her latest exhibit, at Mestizo this month, she is documenting a movement that began long before she was born, and that will last beyond her years. Her work helps to tell the stories of the American Indian Movement, which in turn is an integral part of the America Indian narrative, and that is a story that cannot be told without activism.
Shanidiin began exploring her identity through work that was originally limited to her family (see a review of a 2014 exhibit here). “I didn’t grow up in my native culture at all really, other than knowing what home was, which is on the rez,” she begins, sharing that her interest in native culture didn’t really flourish until her adulthood. When her search took her outside her family, she found the American Indian Movement, and began to draw much of her creative inspiration from it. She found that the fight for native sovereignty is also the fight for water protection, for land protection, and that all of this comprises the fight to preserve native culture and identity.
Mestizo Gallery is known for thought provoking, confrontational exhibitions exploring issues of race, gender, sexuality and civil rights, just to name a few. Shanidiin’s exhibition, I Honor You, is no different. She wastes no time in getting the viewer to start thinking —enter the gallery and you are met with the words “YOU ARE ON INDIAN LAND” painted in black along the main gallery wall. The entire exhibition is a beautifully blunt portrait of the faces and words that shape the American Indian Movement. “I’m definitely using my photo documentary work of people and faces that I’ve met. Some of them are family, and some of them are Native American activists or elders,” she says referring to a wall of images, each surrounded by delicately hand scripted quotes from people within the movement, including Clyde Bellecourt, one of the founding members of the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s.
“I’m also really inspired by the photo documentary work that was done during that time,” she says of the early days of the American Indian Movement and the portraits of the movement’s leaders. “And then seeing them now in their old age, it shows their resilience,” she remarks. “What was going on at Standing Rock, [those leaders] were there to support that movement…because they’ve been through this so many times.”
Shanidiin works part time as a sign painter, and the skills and aesthetics from that trade have been repurposed in this exhibition to help spread her message. Shanidiin combines inspiration from Civil Rights era protest signs with the aesthetic of her signage work to create fine art protest placards. One sign reads “500 years of indigenous resistance!” written in a style that wouldn’t feel out of place in the produce department of your local grocery store — positioning the signs as advertisements for indigenous issues that have gone overlooked time and time again in the American political and societal conversation. “It’s just a long history of people holding up signs, essentially advertising what they stand for and the issues that they care about.”
This exhibition provides intellectual fuel to keep the fire burning behind this immensely important conversation. “We’re at this point in time where people do intentionally want to be well meaning, and to honor native people,” she says. “We’re learning about the true history… We’re realizing we’ve been lied to… about the genocide of Native Americans.” The power of art lies first and foremost in visibility. Once you see something, it stays with you and changes you. The works on display here have the power to change people’s minds. When you see the messages in this gallery, it’s hard not to start questioning what you think you know about the history of Native Americans.
Denae Shanidiin’s I HONOR YOU is at Mestizo Institute of Culture & Arts in Salt Lake City (631 W. North Temple Suite 700) April 17 – May 12, and open for Gallery Stroll, Friday, April 21, 6-9 pm.