(Installations and Land Art) MERCEDES DORAME
Los Angeles-based artist Mercedes Dorame calls on her Tongva ancestry to engage the problematics of visibility and ideas of cultural construction. In this interview, she talks about the ways in which her work seeks to reconnect to the landscape and traditions of the Tongva.
Interview by Uzomah Ugwu
You are part of the Tongva tribe, who were original residents of the Los Angeles area. Since the tribe has no federal recognition and therefore no reservation lands, how crucial has it been for you to find ways to recreate fundamental roots of place and identity through your work?
I feel that most of my work is about reconnecting to the landscape. I feel deep loss at not having space to gather to perform ceremony, at not having a space that is really ours. Working as a cultural resource consultant on development sites has also giving me small windows into what lies beneath the earth we walk, drive and exist on. It reveals a past that is rich with meaning and history. I reconnect and have a deeper understanding of the city from this work.
I take this experience along with my desire to reclaim land with me all of the time. I stop to watch the river move below me (even if it’s a cemented-in river), I roll down my windows to smell the warm brush on the hillsides, I pay attention to the sky and the birds that exist there. These are some of the many ways I try to keep roots in the city.
What was an original impetus for you to begin making works that speak to Tongva history and tradition? Were there any inspiring role models in your family or elsewhere who you can say influenced your creative development in these directions?
My work really began in response to my attempt to process the experience of working on burial sites where my ancestors were being moved to make way for development. The work is a response to the powerlessness you feel when you hold the weight of caring for your ancestors yet only have the power to give “recommendations.”
My father has always been a source of great inspiration. He trained me to work as a cultural resource consultant, and he also studied photography and is an artist. He has always been supportive of my exploration. I feel he also understands my artwork as we have worked together on sites and he has so much additional experience because of his many years of working in the field and because he is one of the “Most Likely Descendants of the Tongva tribe,” a designation given by the Native Heritage Commission, which gives him a lot of responsibility for the ancestors. He always reminds me the most important thing is to remind everyone involved of the humanity, that these were someone’s mother, father, brother sister or child.
How have other Tongva people reacted to your work? Do you feel that your work has helped others to reconnect directly with their ancestry?
My art always aims to inspire and spark curiosity in those that come in contact with it. I feel that other Tongva have connected with my work and there’s a general sense of happiness as we become more visible, especially in Los Angeles. Of course there are always divisive members that have splintered off from the group, they go after those having successful moments, but my hope is that they would turn that harmful energy to do something positive, to build community instead.
I also feel that there is an empowerment in talking about my culture, empowerment for those who have also experienced similar things. Colonization took our language, our religion, and so many of our people, we are survivors, and yet at the same time we are made to feel shameful for not having these things. I have gained a lot of strength in facing the loss and in no longer being ashamed.
When you work in landscapes which are traditionally connected to the Tongva, what is your process for choosing the specific symbolic or ceremonial objects for a particular photograph or installation?
I would say that I work very intuitively. I am incredibly intentional about the materials I use which build meaning in the work, but I always look at the interventions as collaborative. It is me responding to the landscape, the flora and fauna, how everything changes through seasons (and yes there are seasons in Los Angeles). These places are never the same, I could return a hundred times and find something new, so my methods and intervention change with them.
You have written that you create "humble ceremonial interventions" with your work as a way to reconnect to lost traditions and lands. In what ways do you approach recreating and reactivating these traditions through the use of historical fact and your own imagination?
I believe that everything you read, breathe, explore, and experience becomes a part of you. Doing work reburying your ancestors, performing ceremony for hundreds of these people, repeating the Tongva words and songs, these things all are inside of me. These are the emotions and experiences I access when I make my own work. In our community there is a lot of tension around authenticity and what is real, and where are the facts lay. My artwork explores and challenges the notion that we cannot have gaps or holes in our history. It builds a personal interpretation and narrative which is my experience as a Tongva person. I do a lot of research and talk to a lot of people so I’m not working in a vacuum, but I want to empower others to feel a sense of authority and authorship in their own culture and stories.
What are some particular challenges to taking history rendered largely through oral tradition and representing that history in a dynamic way visually?
I think the strength of working visually is that you don't have to explain every detail, you have the ability to spark curiosity. I want to leave people space to think, learn, and breathe with the work. I also don't want to to give a history lesson or be an educator in order for my work to have an impact. Art runs in my blood, my parents are artists, my sisters are artists, and as much as I love being able to communicate with words, there is something deeper and transformative I am able to do with visual representation.
How do you think art made by Native Americans can alter longstanding stereotypes set by the entertainment industry? Do you also think that increased exposure of this art can help to ameliorate systematic institutionalized racism and prejudice?
I have always tried to be very careful about reproducing stereotypes. I believe so much of what we consider “Native” in this country comes from Hollywood. I remember being told in a grad school critique that if only I wore more native jewelry I might look more “native.” What does it mean to look more native? What does it mean to look more “me?” I definitely believe that representing the culture in a non-stereotypical way can be enlightening to the viewer and challenge ideas and prejudice that are held. We are taught so poorly about Native culture and what that even means, the diversity and magnitude of tribes across the United States. In school textbooks and history lessons there is so much work to be done.
In what ways do you try to address sociopolitical problems within the Native American community, especially regarding specific issues with the Tongva tribe?
What I truly dream about is having land. I long for a place to go home to, land that is truly ours, a space to regenerate and to rebuild. I believe that would have the greatest positive impact for our tribe in the grander scheme of things.
Personally, I try to be supportive, generous and open with younger artists and other Native people. I attempt to be thoughtful about my understanding and representation of our culture, always explaining that is my personal interpretation. And that we all have a story and experience that is valuable.
I also dream about a time when I will never again hear the sentence talking to people in Los Angeles: “Tongva, I've never heard of them.”
What do you think is one of the bigger misconceptions you have faced as a Native American woman and artist?
This is a big one….I once had a man say "show me your nipples and it’ll prove to me whether you’re really Native” — there’s so much tangled up in that, visual markers tied to native-ness (phrenology anyone?). His sexism and objectification asking me this, and the audacity to feel like he had any authority to determine my nativeness in any way shape or form. There’s a lot of sexism, racism, power inequality and general disgustingness that I have encountered in the world.
I think the biggest misconception is that all Native people are the same, there are so many diverse cultural heritages across the Americas. I cannot speak for my own tribe much less the other tribes across the Americas. Also having history books tell the Disney-fied stories of Pocahontas, Sacagawea — that the only valuable native women were those that helped white men do work that they weren’t capable of, but it’s not even told that bluntly. Let’s learn instead about Toypurina, the Tongva leader who attempted a revolt against the San Gabriel Mission.
The women I have encountered in the Native community are strong survivors and culture bearers, but we’re often having to fight through a lot of muck to be seen that way.
What has been a seminal experience for you in the art world, such as moments of validation and inspiration which have made you want to keep moving forward with your work?
I have to say that being part of the Hammer Museum's Made in LA 2018 was an incredible experience. I came in with a proposal in a sketch book and they gave me the space to create my first real installation with cogged stones. I appreciate the confidence they had in me, and the belief in my ideas.
I also get strength to move forward when I talk to young native people and artists after lectures or panels or while teaching. When I hear they are also trying to tell their story and feel inspired by what I have said, that keeps me going.
If you were not creating visual art, what other ways do you think you would try to present your message?
I would love to write poetry (and perhaps have), I feel the spaces between words act similarly to the space in my photographs. I also love sitting with a group of people sharing a meal, one of my closest friends I met working at a coffee shop, so maybe something around food and sharing resources.
Who are some other Native American artists that inspire you and that you would like to call attention to?
James Luna, his wit and power, L. Frank Manriquez - also Tongva, we worked together on a Tiaat, an experience I’ll never forget. Katie Dorame, my sister, we showed together once and though our approach is different we are talking about very similar things. Adrienne Dorame — also my sister — working in Los Angeles. Weshoyot Alvitre — currently making a book on Toypurina. River Tikwi Garza, a fellow Tongva artist. Emma Robbins - an artist who also works with water rights issues. Nanibah Chacon — who I recently worked with on a mural in El Segundo. Kristen Dorsey, Jaclyn Roessel — who co-curated the Matriarchs show at ESMOA bringing together a really group of powerful women. Pamela Munro, who is always trying to bring Native issues and Tongva people into the conversation. Gerald Clarke, who I’ve shown with but never met :) I know I’ll remember a bunch more as soon as this gets published but that’s a start.
Uzomah Ugwu is a poet, writer, and activist. Her core focus is on human rights, mental health, animal rights and the rights of LBGTQ persons. Her writing has been featured in Prelude Magazine, Tuck Magazine, Voices of Eve and Light Journal, and is forthcoming in the Angel City Review and the Scarlet Leaf Review. She is the Contributing/Poetry Editor for A Tired Heroine magazine. Her love for art comes from a passion instilled by her mother. Some of her favorite artists include Louis Bourgeois, Jarlath Daly, Gauguin, Lamidi Olonde Fakeye, and Jackson Pollack.