Studio Visit: Mercedes Dorame

Mercedes Dorame; Photo credit Gary Brewer

Mercedes Dorame – In the Present Tense

“When a language dies, so much more than words are lost. Language is the dwelling place of ideas that do not exist anywhere else. It is a prism through which to see the world.”

~ Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Written by Gary Brewer
An artist is a time traveler, creating worlds of ideas and emotions that will be transported into the future, to be felt and understood by people who are yet to be born. One can also make present that which has been hidden, beneath images created by forces that shape and condition our reality: forces that attempt to erase a history and a people who are still very much alive.

The ground upon which we walk is filled with the ancestors and the stories of the Native people who have been here for thousands of years, long before the arrival of Europeans. The living link to these people is here, now, just beneath the surface, in places that have been transformed into our current reality: 21st century Los Angeles.

The artist Mecedes Dorame is a native Tongva, one of the many Indigenous groups of Southern California. In her work she reanimates the history of her people, making their living presence known through installations and photographs documenting her interventions into the landscape. Through her family history she is able to get access to ancestral sites where she creates works that are in part, ritual and a reframing of the narrative that describes her people as something from the past. “It always makes me angry when I see a plaque somewhere, meant to inform people of our history, that puts everything in the past tense: ‘Native people used acorns as part of their diet’ or ‘the Tongva people used to live in this region’. We use acorns, and we live here now! My work is in part a way to transform the past tense into the present.” Her works use the language of contemporary art as a means to transform the world. To reawaken and assert that this is stolen land and that the people from whom it was stolen are very much alive and are demanding that their presence be known and their rights to ancestral land be addressed.

We met for our studio visit at the Fern Dell in Griffith Park, a natural spring that feeds a year-round creek, that had been the site of a Tongva village. Though there is little evidence of this site today, one can feel the presence of Native people using the water, which provided this essential element for the life of a community. This place is important to Mercedes, as it is a place where her ancestors lived- though she has not created a work here yet- it will be a site for something that she will engage with for a project in the future. She said of her practice, “I work outside for the most part. I create cast-objects made of concrete that are representations of ‘cog stones’, a term I dislike. I call them star stones as they look more like stars and not like a cog wheel as some non-native person named them when they were first found by anthropologists. These stones are only found here and are unique to the Native people of this region; their exact use and purpose is unknown, some see them as practical objects, but in my imagination they are ceremonial forms used for mapping celestial movement and charting pathways for moving between worlds. I use these and abalone shells, red ochre colored earth and other objects that are important materials for the Tongva. I arrange them in different locations that are also important to Tongva people and photograph the installation, which I see as a collaboration with the landscape. Photography is a form of memory; it is a way to record these private rituals and create permanent records, coding the spaces as Tongva.”

I first saw Mercedes’ work in the “Made in LA” exhibition at the Hammer Museum last year. I was moved by the depth of her poetic touch; of how a seemingly simple gesture could activate the heart and mind on so many different levels. To engage one in recognizing a ‘great amnesia’ that we as non-native people accept: that the land upon which we live, work, love and dream just a few generations ago, belonged to people whose culture and world unfolded over thousands of years. Her works are not a hammer or a sword, but a song that awakens the living presence- that Indigenous people are here now- and that the rituals and connection to this land still pulses in the hearts and minds of thousands of living souls, striving to gain recognition and access to the land for their culture to unfurl a new chapter.

Mercedes Dorame; Image courtesy of the artist

In her installations, Mercedes uses string to articulate a space that she said is a reference to a Yovaar, a circular structure open at the top, used by the Tongva to enact ceremonies, connecting people to different spiritual planes. Of these structures Mercedes said, “I make reference to the Yovaar, but I am also thinking of light, a beam of light, starlight. I make them differently each time I create one, to respond to the environment, and the location. The star stones are placed along with abalone and different objects and I use cinnamon to cover them. I want to connect them to the land but also the stars. I am trying to re-imagine how our people connected physically and spiritually with the night sky.”

It was the installation at the Hammer that particularly caught my imagination: part painting- part object, its temporal nature giving it the metaphysical aura of a memory; of time and the elements erasing and revealing archetypal forms that contain the thoughts and beliefs of a culture. In this piece, Mercedes laid down several colors in a circle on the floor. It is outlined with cinnamon, which looks much like ground red ochre, then it is filled with the deepest blue of the night sky. Luminous turquoise highlights encircle several star stones placed along a path suggestive of the Milky Way, and the three stones of Orion’s belt. Other star stones are placed though out the field, as well as red ochre stones and a grouping of abalone shells that seem to contain pigments or elements for some ceremonial purpose. The vibrant red strings articulate a cone-like structure, rising from points around the circle, coming together to contain the space. It is a linear articulation of space that is open, yet contains a magical universe. In other installation works, Mercedes lays down one earth pigment with the star stones placed on top, then another pigment is sprinkled on top of that. By lifting and moving the stones, the silhouette of the shape is left- becoming a memory-echo of its form. She then arranges the stones and the strings to create a symbolic image, which functions as both an abstract work, whose meaning is open, and a living expression of her culture. She said of these, “ I see these creations as personal ceremonies, of a way to connect with my culture and to respect and represent the presence of my people.”

The string that she uses came out of her experience as a consultant. As a living descendant of the Tongva, she works at times to advise archeologists and developers who have been called to a site where work-crews doing road construction or a new building, have unearthed a burial site or artifacts from a village site. Where this is happening, the system of unearthing pottery, tools, artifacts and ancestors, would be done by laying out a grid of string into three-foot square units. Carefully, a three-foot deep hole would be dug, as the archeological team would systematically sift through the ground. “ When I worked as a consultant, it was a conflicted position. I would be there to advise on what they should do with the remains or objects that were found. Some would say, ‘Thank you. We will use your input and do our best to accommodate your suggestions’. Others would just acknowledge the request but not follow the request, as there is no legal obligation to actually do anything I recommend. I felt a responsibility for my culture and my ancestors, but I also felt incredibly powerless. It is part of the reason I became an artist and what motivates my ideas and vision.”

Mercedes’ photo documentations of her ephemeral installations into the landscape are personal rituals where she constructs simple arrangements of string; star stones, abalone shells, red ochre and other objects used in ritual and in the daily life of the Tongva people. The locations of these installations are places that are important to Mercedes personally or to the Tongva people, and are always places that she has temporary access to. In one work, To the Land of the Dead Shiishonga, she sprinkled cinnamon onto a Funnel Web Spider’s web, highlighting the opening, transforming it, to become a portal into the earth. The mythic metaphor of a passage into a netherworld or a spirit world is suggested through this subtle gesture. These are political and spiritual actions that use a subtly persuasive force of poetry and metaphor to make their statement. It is with a metaphysical touch that Mercedes generates a powerful presence: both past and present merge in visions that intone the song of this earth and of the people that have lived here for millennia.
Art is a conversation through time. It reaches into the past and carries forward into the present, the language of those who came before us- their visions and dreams. It is a poem written for a future whose very existence is always uncertain. This earth and the heavens are shape-shifters and artists are the storytellers who strive to create a language supple enough to flow into the chimerical universe of an ever-changing world.

Mercedes Dorame’s works speaks of the concerns of Native People: to awaken the world to say that they are here now, and that this land is still their spiritual home. Her art creates a song that conveys this truth in the language of the stars and from the earth beneath our feet. It is through the alchemy of art where ideas that can create change- are dispersed like seeds- seeds that flower and grow into ideas that can transform the world.

Current exhibitions: 

  • Awe to Activism – Museum of Sonoma County, curated by Jeff Nathanson, through November 29th, 2020
  • Reimagined Landscapes – Center for Photographic Arts, curated by Ann Jastrab, through September 13th 
  • What is Feminist Art – Smithsonian Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, curated by Mary Savig, through November 29th, 2020

Upcoming exhibitions:

  • Unshuttered – the Getty Center, curated by jill moniz, opening August 2020
  • When I Remember I See Red – Autry Museum, curated by Frank LaPena and Mark Johnson, opening September 2020
  • The Map and the Territory – The Fowler Museum, opening October 2020

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