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.