Emerging artist Denae Shanidiin, 21, wishes the emphasis wasn’t so much on “Navajo” for her show currently at Mestizo Gallery. “Because you call someone a Navajo artist and people expect traditional. I wish I were traditional, but I’m not,” she says with a smile. “I just don’t think that’s realistic in this day and age.” Tribal elders, she adds, urge traditional ways, “but if I were a traditional artist I wouldn’t be able to make these photographs. . . . I don’t do traditional pottery. I want to be myself first.”
Still, observes Hikmet Sidney Loe, who taught Shanidiin in several art history classes at Westminster College where the artist is currently a student, “Denae showed a deep interest in the materials of art and their historical use (particularly in photography and ceramics) and developed creative projects rooted in her great compassion towards people and their unique origins.”
This small but engaging exhibition contains 19 photographs, a group of superb hand-built and smoke-fired sculptures and a mixed-media board describing the healing peyote ceremony that was conducted for her beloved grandfather following a heart attack and stroke. It may be many viewers’ first opportunity to see a rare eagle feather, a ritual fan, photos of the teepee and the “before and after” of an all-night Good Way Ceremony, though images of the actual Native American Church meeting are, of course, not presented.
The artist has five siblings, all sisters. Only one, Priscilla, will willingly model and the most compelling photographs in the exhibition are a series in color of her in her various perceived roles as a woman warrior, as herself and as a sister. Shanidiin used a TLR, Yashica Mat medium format camera, an artist’s eye and a photojournalist’s straightforward composition for these and many of the other images presented. (Her other camera is a Voightlander Bessa-R3A Rangefinder.) “I really like the classic photo,” says Shanidiin. “A lot of my photographs are classically composed: there is the subject right in front of you, there’s hardly any abstractness to the composition. It’s just very literal, very readable.” Besides working digitally, she prints traditionally in the darkroom on silver gelatin and the majority of the photographs in the show are black and white portraiture of family members (her grandparents, taken in front of the hogan; her sister curled up in the pickup bed with a load of cedar).
She based her exhibition, titled Ho’zho’ogo naasha’a doo (I Will Walk in Beauty), around a Navajo prayer, that she made a few changes to, asking one to do all things in beauty.
On the trail blessed with pollen may I walk;
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk;
With dew around my feet may I walk.
With beauty before me may I walk
With beauty behind me may I walk
With beauty above me may I walk
With beauty all around me,
may I walk.
She points out that while there’s a lot of context behind her images, “I like to take photos for the actual beauty of the photo.”
Born in Fort Defiance near the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, AZ, Shanidiin (who is also a quarter Korean and a quarter white) moved with her mother to Sandy as a small child but frequently visits her grandparents on the reservation. She attended Jordan High School where she studied art under Leah Smith and ceramics with Jared Ward.
Her hand-built sculpture here is a showstopper. Five elegant, abstracted women, some adorned with jewelry created by the artist and all with traditional Navajo buns, accompany a photo of a puberty ceremony. After these pieces were bisque fired, the artist put them in a barrel outside with “all this debris: wood chips, weeds, anything” – and then “just torched it,” creating wonderful patterns on the figures.
It was when she started college that Shanidiin began to resent not knowing Navajo or much about her culture. “My mother lost the language when she went to college, so I never learned it,” she says, and that is something she is trying to remedy, though finding it very difficult. (She says her generation, for the most part, never learned Navajo, but that the generation growing up now is being taught the language.) She is studying her clans and learning all the many stories that make up her heritage and that is what her artwork has been about: “You have such a connection to home, such a connection to land. I’m learning new things that I never even knew about the Navajo. And it’s just clicked. It’s already in me. So I think making art is my way of processing all of that, my way of fulfilling that need – that little part of me that’s missing,” she says.
Shanidiin works as the artist for Harmon’s in Draper and does a lot of sign painting and chalk art. She enjoys her job, but sometimes thinks about her traditional great grandmother, who wove beautiful rugs. “I wish I had that as a Navajo woman. Maybe a little bit later in life,” she says. “There’s time.”
Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts | MICAin Salt Lake City through June 14.‘s Ho’zho’ogo naasha’a doo is at
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.