Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Katie Dorame's studio
Your headphones tell you it’s 1812. The sounds of mass at Mission San Juan Capistrano quietly rise and fall. Suddenly there’s a roar, screams; the bells toll violently.
This is Katie Dorame’s favorite part of the audio tour.
Maybe that’s because this is the only time the audio tour of the mission actually points toward any sort of trauma, and individuals cannot in any way be responsible for an earthquake. Or maybe it’s because the audio tour is really hokey. We laughed together just imagining it.
A studio visit with Katie is a breath of fresh air. She is a rare friend for me as we share an intersection of painting strategies, indigenous politics, a complicated relationship with religion, and an offbeat interest in monstrosities. Katie grew up in southern California and is a member of the Tongva (or Gabrieliño) Tribe of California. Her studio in Oakland is filled with paintings, drawings, a sculpture here and there, and newer installation work.
Katie poses a question in her work, “What if westward expansion went all the way into the ocean, into outer space?” Her question lands her in the rich territory of science fiction. In comics, books, and movies, indigenous people have these special connections to nature, to mythical spirituality, and to other equally strange aliens. (If that’s true, I am missing out.) Space travel always seems to be about manifest destiny anyway.
Her recent body of work, Alien Apostles, empathically puts that strangeness onto the Franciscan priests who colonized what is now California in the 1800’s, when the Tongva and other tribes California experienced multiple waves of invasion. (The Franciscan priests only enslaved and converted the indigenous people in the area instead of committing outright genocide, which is argument the Vatican is using to declare Junipero Serra a saint.) Many Tongva artifacts have been lost, and much of the history left was written by the padres themselves. A reality for Katie is that she must learn about her people through books, making history and research a painful and dark experience—one I can definitely relate to. Katie verbalizes the disconnection between well. Someone had asked her if the padres were just the bad guys then. She responded, “If they’re aliens, then they’re new and they don’t know the rules.” The alien padres remain monstrous, bloodied, and cruel, but they are the strange ones. Her work attempts to make sense of it all, to comprehend how these events took place. What’s Katie’s stance on these histories and religious institutions?
“Somewhere between Mulder and Scully.” She wants to believe, she wants to take part, she wants to inhabit that world; but there’s still so much skepticism.
Like with most science fiction, Katie has an attraction and a repulsion to history. You keep watching the carnage, but through your hands covering your face. Cinema has a big voice in how the public views history. Katie’s connection to film harkens back to her own childhood in southern California. The last painting she made during her MFA was titled Hollywood Indian. Fictions and histories infiltrate one another. In another body of work, Shifting Screens, Katie juxtaposed images of Tongva artifacts found by archeologist’s sifting the dirt with screens with images of non-indigenous actresses portraying indigenous characters, which pointed to shifting identities. The film stills are seductive, yet the artifact looms over them leaving you to wonder what is happening. Katie points out how Hollywood loves to strip imagery of its history. I have found myself watching movies filled with questionable takes on indigenous identity, being both horrified and fascinated. Her Shifting Screens paintings are perfectly lit, slick, super smooth, and gorgeous—just like Hollywood.
Katie’s Alien Apostles paintings take an agency that I love: she is making her own stories. She has always found the stories of Jesus to be violent and bloody, an aspect often disregarded in Renaissance paintings of a peaceful Jesus seemingly relaxed on the cross. Her paintings possess the same structure, but with an unsettling, ethereal nature. There always seems to be something lurking. Katie uses oil paint like watercolors, thinned and mostly as washes. Her paintings are simultaneously disconcerting and hilarious. They glow, but I like to tell myself that it’s actually because of these unearthly (radioactive?) alien padres.
I asked, “Where do you see these paintings living?”
This is a question Katie has long been wondering. She’s also begun to create her own setting for her work. Her painting installation in her own studio draws on the Spanish and early colonial painting in the missions. Local indigenous people constructed and painted the missions, and their own designs snuck their way onto the walls despite the padres actively attempting to anglicize them. She feels a connection to these other indigenous painters through this physicality to create her work. The paintings on the wall feel defiant and secretly political to me. A book details what seems to be two deer facing one another, when in actuality one is a deer, and the other is a hunter disguised as a deer. Katie has begun creating her own versions of these paintings to remember these moments and create a space for her own work. The space also has a conversation with history.
There is something disconcerting in the question of where work needs to go. The ugly histories of displacement for indigenous people still echo in the lives of contemporary indigenous people. Katie’s solution to frame her own space is both challenging and a relief. Katie’s work looks back, an unpopular viewpoint in a San Francisco Bay area that is in love with forward progress but one also struggling with the neocolonial undertones of gentrification. Our conversation seems to take place in the past itself—we let the histories we talk about transport us to somewhere else, a strategy I find undeniable in her work. It’s as if the Spanish invasion of California, the Inquisition, Goya’s life, early Baroque painting, and 1950’s B-movies are all happening at this very second.
You can see it in her palette. I asked how she chose her colors. It seemed to be somewhere between academic painting and the items that she just likes to keep around. Books out on the table are filled with images of the missions’ interiors and their tawny stucco. Burnt sienna and coral echo throughout all of her work and in the artifacts, shells, and earth-toned fabric scraps in her studio. A piece of translucent vellum appropriately covers a painting from Shifting Screens. There’s an alien padre sculpture in a box that stood near the door of her recent exhibition in Ithaca, NY to beckon (or frighten away) viewers. His face is that glowing terre verte. Katie uses oils as a vehicle for color—she finds it the only way to achieve the richness and luminosity she needs.
I look back at the padre sculpture. He is so creepy. But Katie made him only 30 inches tall and sort of sad looking, especially as he lies powerlessly on his back with his scaly hands raised in the air.