A solo exhibition by Albuquerque artist and muralist Nani Chacon (Diné, Chicana) celebrates Indigeneity through storytelling and design.
Nani Chacon: SPECTRUM
April 8–August 21, 2022
SITE Santa Fe
Upon entering SPECTRUM at SITE Santa Fe, the viewer faces the apex of a long triangular-shaped room. Two opposite walls covered in large-scale paintings of vibrant colors, patterns, and images create an uplifting mood. A partial wall, bathed in abstract patterns of woven yarn, bisects the room like a light ray angling out of an invisible curve.
The reorientation of angles is just one way the debut solo exhibition of artist and muralist Nanibah “Nani” Chacon (Diné, Chicana) surprises, invites, and plays with expectations.
Chacon, who was born in Gallup, New Mexico and raised in Chinle, Arizona as well as Corrales, New Mexico, began her career as a graffiti artist before becoming a celebrated muralist and painter. The exhibition includes a survey of approximately nineteen murals commissioned nationally and internationally over the past ten years and serves as a meeting point between her public community-based murals and more personal, contemplative works.
In a phone interview with Southwest Contemporary, Chacon shares that the exhibition is “really about showing the entirety of the work that I do.”
“I think the one thing that kind of tied everything together… is the idea of space, how a viewer interacts with space, and how work contains space, and how we’re kind of brought into that,” says Chacon.
Chacon’s first public mural, She Taught Us to Weave, depicts Spider Woman, a central deity from the Diné creation story, as a strong Indigenous woman with downturned eyes and fingers upwardly curled, as if weaving a traditional design. It still lives in Albuquerque’s Wells Park Rail Corridor but has since been coated in layers of graffiti, leaving only the upper portion visible.
When asked about the changing mural, Chacon says she doesn’t mind the graffiti and thinks the piece is interesting in its “transition period,” adding, “[When creating public art] you just have to surrender it to the time and the space, and that also becomes part of the content when you think about it.” She adds that she loves creating public art because it is accessible to everybody, creates conversations, and reaches an audience she’s most interested in sharing with. Alternately, a gallery or museum space is more controlled, but doesn’t have as broad a reach, says Chacon.
A small sketch and painting of She Taught Us to Weave appears in the exhibition’s survey as well as a handful of works that hang outside on the SITE building. The large-scale painting Asdzáá Na’ ashjé íí offers another depiction of Spider Woman, this one more fantastical, as a goddess with eight appendages, eight eyes, and a red string webbed between her fingers.
Each of the eight large-scale paintings references a Diné creation story. They feature insects (the first creatures), animals, and figures juxtaposed against vibrant colors and geometric shapes. The artist says that most of the figures in the paintings are depicted nude as a way to counter colonialist and other widespread romanticized representations of Indigeneity.
The painting Four Genders Were Born… ties into the Diné creation story by centering the four original genders. A passing glance reveals full illustrations of genitalia that appear to be attached to the so-called “wrong” gender. Exhibition audio by Chacon reveals that the work references the Diné origin story of the first genders: male, female, female embodying the male, and male embodying the female. Through this piece, Chacon explains, she is able to tie Diné mythology to the conversation around gender binarism that is taking place today.
Throughout the exhibition, curated by Brandee Caoba, the viewer is moved along from story to story in a linear, almost geometric fashion, circumnavigating the string installations (Our Gods Walk Among Us and Don’t Whistle at Night) in the center of the room—the gorgeous abstract patterns, constructed from yarn and nails, take up each side of a freestanding wall and mimic the artistry of traditional Diné rug weaving.
When asked about her intended audience for this exhibition, Chacon says, “My work is first and foremost for my people, for Diné people, for Indigenous people.” Beyond that, she hopes everyone will take part and celebrate the complexities of Indigenous people. “I want everyone to understand that we have histories wide and broad that make us [who we are] and [that are] still relevant today,” she says.
She adds that she sees her artwork as her own exploration, and she invites conversation and correction. She especially wants young people to inquire about what they see, and she invites others “to then talk about it, to then explain it, or start pulling that thread of intrigue.”
The thread of storytelling, both literally and figuratively, runs through SPECTRUM, and connects the rich history of Diné origin stories and weaving to abstract design and present-day social justice issues. The exhibition succeeds in holding multiple spaces while allowing room for future conversations.
Nani Chacon: SPECTRUM is scheduled to remain on display through August 21, 2022 at SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo De Peralta.