SALT LAKE CITY — A collaborative art exhibition aims to demonstrate the transformative properties of art as a vehicle for healing, while also bringing awareness to the international epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women, as well as the violence inflicted on the LGBTQ+ population. For David Rios Ferreira: Transcending Time and Space, artists David Rios Ferreira and Denae Shanidiin join forces as part of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts Acme Lab, which the museum describes as “a community space for creative experimentation where visitors are encouraged to engage with art in new ways,” according to an exhibition label.
Ferreira is a multidisciplinary artist, curator, and museum educator whose energetically layered collages and illustrations invite careful attention. His work visualizes a confluence of influences ranging from popular culture to psychedelic patterns and historical imagery. Denae Shanidiin (Diné Navajo Nation and Korean) is an artist and community activist, whose practice sheds light on the social and political issues impacting Native peoples. In addition to her artistic practice, she serves as a consultant for Restoring Ancestral Winds, a nonprofit aimed at addressing issues of violence in Indigenous communities through outreach and education.
Ferreira contributes a series of c-print collage and gouache works on polypropylene, which he calls “gateways,” while Shanidiin provides written passages and images in connection with photographer Jonathan Canlas and MMIWhoismissing, an Indigenous-lead organization that provides support for families of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women in addition to training and educational resources on ongoing issues afflicting Indigenous persons. Shanidiin has been the director of the organization since 2018.
Entering the space, I was immediately drawn to the left corner of the gallery, painted black and adorned with a horizontal strip of nebula-strewn galaxy imagery. Displayed at heights below, amid, and above this horizontal strip are Ferreira’s square-shaped prints. The works each contain luminous colors atop a black background, which mirrors the stark effect of the surrounding walls and gives the works a psychedelic effect.
The works incorporate a central portal, circular configurations that each combine novel and delicately intricate illustrative elements such as plants, swirling waves, and machine-like appendages. The artist envisions these circles — a symbolic shape in many cultural traditions — as gateways that allow viewers to communicate with lost loved ones or persons from times past.
He also cites the systemic violence inflicted on Indigenous and LGBTQ+ populations as an influence. In particular, the 2001 murder of transgender Navajo teenager Fred “Frederica” C. Martinez stirred Ferreira at a pivotal moment of his own life — when he was just beginning to acknowledge his queer identity. The titles of each of Ferreira’s portals are taken from the lyrics of songs by megastar Beyoncé, one of Frederica’s most beloved artists.
In “No darkness I can’t overcome,” (2021) sections of grass emanate around the circular portal alongside feathers, a cartoon-like animation, and the Millennium Falcon and R2D2 from Star Wars. “Every time it feels so good, it hurts sometimes,” (2021) and “Burning through my darkest night,” (2021) also depict swirling and intersecting imagery around a black hole, as if to symbolize the explosiveness of our image-driven world.
Perhaps the only thing that can surpass the pain of losing a loved one is the misery of not knowing what has happened to them or who may be held accountable, a reality faced by the families of countless missing and murdered Indigenous women throughout North America. Statistics on the true scale of this tragedy are difficult to assess — exacerbated by factors such as historic marginalization and cross-jurisdictional data collecting — but the numbers are startling. Data compiled from 1999-2020 implicates homicide as the third-leading cause of death for Indigenous girls and women ages 12 to 30, more than 10 times the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While coming to terms with this history is painful, Transcending Time and Space uses novel ways of inviting us in — bridging gaps between past and present, as well as the biographical divides that work to sequester us from one another.
Along the gallery’s east wall, a series of photographs capture the sky, a lush green hill, sand, and a circular structure situated on red earth. Accompanying the images are titles and passages taken from Navajo language and teachings, authored by Shanadiin in 2021. The image titles and passage correspond are directional — “E’e’aah, West,” “Náhookǫs, North,” “Ha’aa’aah, East,” and “Shádi’ááh, South,” respectively.
Shanadiin, whose own aunt was murdered, shares a deeply personal and profound connection to her activism.
“I thought this was a pain that was isolated to my family, but growing up in a colonized space, you try and understand who you are, and then in the process of returning home [to Fort Defiance in Navajo Nation] and back to my language, my culture, my tradition, and ceremony, you realize this is connected to every single Indigenous person who exists here today,” she said during an artist talk on March 18, 2022.
Initiating connection is an integral part of the exhibition. In spirit with the collaborative qualities of the museum’s Acme Lab, the exhibition also features an interactive display enabling access to electronic portals, as well as a wall painted with one of Ferreira’s portals surrounding a large circular cutout. Inside, black wooden circles create a cavern for an interactive process that invites viewers to inscribe messages — using materials from a nearby table — to those they’ve lost. The act of ruminating on such a message before releasing it into the portal is surprisingly emotional, a process of silent meditation and personal recognition of one’s grief that is rare in today’s world.
This exhibition evokes a palpable reverence for the gravity of lives lived and lost. For just as the pain of death touches us all, so too should the plight of the historically marginalized stir a sense of accountability and reckoning.
What Ferreira and Shanidiin have accomplished here is profoundly moving — an exhibition that makes specific the ongoing plight of Indigenous and marginalized communities in Utah and beyond, while simultaneously rendering questions of universal applicability in an intimate and approachable way. In a state surrounded at every juncture with a particular form of religious and historical myth-making, there is much we may gain by hearing from those whose ancestors are the stewards of the land on which we now reside.
Transcending Time and Space continues at the UMFA Acme Lab (410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84112) through December 4, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Jorge Rojas.