Incantations for Troubled Land: Demian DinéYazhi´’s Galéé Sin

Review

Incantations for Troubled Land: Demian DinéYazhi´’s Galéé Sin

By Minh Nguyen May 22, 2018

Beyond the paved road on the southwestern track of Route 66, waves of weathered sage brushes guard towering red rock mesas. To absorb this vast desert landscape—to catch the sunlight crashing through cracks of sandstone buttes as it dutifully has for hundreds of years—is to feel humbled as a mere blip in time. Consoling, yes, but nature’s charm also beguiles, concealing histories of destructive human manipulation of the land behind its advertised views of “natural beauty.”  

Demian DinéYazhi´’s latest exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery, Galéé Sin, capsulizes this bittersweetness: the solace of landscapes is coupled with the pain of the relentless expulsion of precious ecosystems to make that solace possible for some. The artist turns these tensions site-specific through a personal commemoration of the historic highway route US 66, focusing where their ancestors of Diné bikeyah (Navajo Nation) reside. Those who travel along US 66 enter the twenty-seven thousand square mile Diné reservation, which stretches from Northwestern New Mexico to Southeastern Utah and Northern Arizona.

Demian DinéYazhi´. Galéé Sin (installation view), 2018. Courtesy of Henry Art Gallery. Photo: Pavel Verbovski.

Now decommissioned, US 66 was one of the first highways conceptualized as an experience, rather than simply a carrier to one. Many things now regarded as canonical to America—fast food, oddities shops, billboards, and neon signs—began along this highway. DinéYazhi´ utilizes these vernacular visual forms of roadside culture throughout the exhibition. Incorporating six collections of digital photos converted to 35mm projector slides and adding text overlays, the artist orients the historical memory of US 66 away from the canon of American nostalgia, and toward the Diné bikeyah people. The work’s name, Galéé Sin, is a reference to a journey song for protection. It is “a song of survivance,” DinéYazhi´ stated in an exhibition talk, “in which the land and Indigenous bodies are healed from enduring traumas and freed from the confining bounds imposed by the colonizing settlers’ imagination and regulation.” The rapidity of the changing projector slides mimics the accelerated way the scenery whizzes by through the window of a moving car.

As one of the first highways of the US Highway System, US 66 altered how people imagined a body could move and form relations across space. US 66 is more than a road, it’s a symbol (the ultimate symbol?) of freedom as mobility, ushering in the American trope of self-discovery via “the road trip.” Who is subjugated in order for others to move more freely? In this case, for the Indigenous communities of the West, that span of distance holds a different memory of movement. In 1864, the Diné were forcibly, inhumanely removed from their ancestral lands and marched to internment at Hwéeldi, near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. More than eight thousand people were forced to walk four hundred miles from Tséyi´ (Canyon de Chelley) to the Bosque Redondo Reservation, located east of Gallup, New Mexico, where DinéYazhi´ lived from age four to eighteen.

Demian DinéYazhi´. Galéé Sin (installation view), 2018. Courtesy of Henry Art Gallery. Photo: Pavel Verbovski.

While billboards are structures for public advertisements, DinéYazhi´ proposes a more personalized and non-commercial, and even cathartic, use for this communication system. The piece Hey Jolene (2016–2018) is a 50-slide poem projected on a makeshift billboard, dedicated to their late friend Jolene. One slide reads, “Hey Jolene where you going with that gun in your hand / clenching it like it was medicine & replacing it with a fifth of whiskey.” Another slide reads, “You blacked out so you forgot to remember to be kind to yourself.” The words are frank but not reprimanding, and compassionately acknowledge that drinking relates to family, which relates to history. The words read like an elegy, to Jolene, and to others who have lived through the countless ways in which generations of trauma and violence can ricochet throughout a land, throughout a life.

DinéYazhi´ critiques the selective public memory of US 66 as a symbol of freedom not only through words, but also in visual artmaking techniques. In some photographs used for the slides, the artist inserted their finger in front of the camera lens and pointed toward the sun, creating a small flesh eclipse. They intend for this gesture to assert their Indigenous skin into the shot of the idyllic landscape, as well as to introduce a component of red to the photo, a significant Diné color. Another piece made of neon, entitled in beauty it is restored (2018), demonstrates how DinéYazhi´’s practice is marked by traditional ceremonial practices. Composed at the center of the neon there is a circular band of white light that almost completes its circumference but contains a break east toward the rising sun, which according to DinéYazhi´, signifies a balance of entry and exit in Diné symbology. In the artist’s choice to use the phrase, “in beauty it is restored,” I wonder about a tinge of sarcasm, a mock-mimicry of the reasoning that beauty can correct injustice.

Demian DinéYazhi´. in beauty it is restored, 2018; neon. Courtesy of Henry Art Gallery. Photo: Pavel Verbovski.

While Galéé Sin unearths dark and troubled histories, it would feel wrong to call this show a polemic. The words, which simultaneously flash from multiple projectors throughout the show, carry at once anguish and calm, a lyricism of ache transforming into song. Hey Jolene ends with the words: “This is how we have emerged from this genderless earth body / to maintain harmony & sanctuary & resistance as ceremony / Hey Jolene / I wish you could have seen that your survival was medicine for the earth.” This sentiment echoes throughout DinéYazhi´’s work, appearing as poetic homages to the violent past, salves for pain, and incantations for the strength for fights to come.

Galéé Sin (The Brink: Demian DinéYazhi´) is on view at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle through September 9, 2018.

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