We Embody What We Make: The Age of Resistance

An Interview with Grace Rosario Perkins

by José Luis Íñiguez

14 December 2015

Jose- I’m on my way. 7:44 PM (via text)

Grace- Perfect -- just made some hot ginger tea for us. 7:45 PM (via text)

Jose- I’m here at your door. 7:51 PM (via text)

Doors opened and I was encircled by Grace. As we made way to her living space, we caught up for a moment. We shared with each other what was happening in our lives and like always; we both recognized how busy we had been. That brief minute of sharing myself with her helped me ground myself in that moment. Her empathetic way of existing has always helped me balance myself. Grace has inspired me to protract what bring joy to my life and has been a great motivator in the acts of resistance.

(Ginger tea was served and we submerged ourselves in a beautiful and inspiring dialogue)

Jose- We can start by you sharing a little about where you come from and how that has informed your artistic practice from the beginning to what you are doing now. I know that you are in constant conversation with your culture and where you come from. I would like to know a little more about those influences.

Grace- When I started making art, I was in a very particular head space. When I was sixteen, I was kicked out of high school and was asked to leave the house. So, I was sent to my dad’s house in a small little town called Coolidge.  It was a bizarre farm town on the edge of the O’odham reservation of five thousand people, where I lived on and off for the next 4 to 5 years of my life. I think that was one of the first places that I went deep. I started drawing a lot and it became a very inward way of recording my day to day. I began taking in the things around me, because I was around really desolate farmland, desertscapes and a weird rural town. My drawings substantiated my existence in a way. So, I think that was one of the first things that really started bringing me to make work about where I was from, the physical space I inhabited, and my culture.

Jose- In the past, we’ve talked about journaling in your youth, and I am curious if drawings were ever embedded in your process of documenting your thoughts? Or was it something completely different?

Grace- It’s interesting because, I don’t journal to that extent today. I used to be very meticulous. I would utilize photos and would draw and that is kinda where the faces started happening. I was sent to this GED program when I was younger that was next door to a comic book shop. When I would get dropped off by my mom, I would go next door and I would buy comic books. I would look at them and read them in my GED class. And so, I started drawing these cartoony things. It was like I was trying to learn how to draw through comics. I’ve never even really studied drawing, but I read lots of comics. The drawings eventually started becoming very systemic. I still start every drawing with the same four lines and then, I just build out. They change through time on how detailed they become.

Jose- You know now that you explain this, it makes complete sense that your drawings carry the comic book aesthetic. The imagery that your drawings carry with the repetition of the eyes, mouth, and their tense faces capsulate what comics provide to build an experience for their viewers. The language that is used in your drawing also serves as captions giving it that comic book illustration structure.

Before I moved to the Bay, I recall having an experience with one of your drawings. I was introduced to your work by a transplant of Bakersfield. It might have been a punk show flyer from my recollection. I bring it up because as I was commuting from San Francisco to Oakland, I began thinking about the drawings and how they morphed into actual objects. You have made a set of masks that you’ve painted what you’ve been drawing for a while and so my question is what do you think these objects are informing? what is their function? 

Grace- Yeah, I use language as an anchor and a way to guide someone. I don’t think of it as being aggressive. In particular, using the native language of my family, I view that as a path of resistance. I think it is really important for me to use what is perceived as lost languages in a way where people are confronted with the discomfort of not being able to read it. That is one thing that I really like working with. My grandma is the last native Diné speaker, so it is hard to work with definitive sources. I work with a dictionary and various online resources because that is all that is available. The way I think about it is that information has been broken down so much in the language and it’s an act of empowerment to work with it, to take the scraps found in these dictionaries and use it. I’ve had people call some of these works “intense,” but that to me is also a way a person may distance themselves from the experience of indigenous peoples… so I try to use these words that are really commonplace like “drink” or “able” and contextualize them in sentences that are often really resonant to the experience of survival. In the Navajo dictionary I use, the example sentence for the word “drink” was “the drunk drinks a lot.” I read it and had to use it… it’s really a fragment that shows the impact of these struggles, these things we unpack through the breakdown of our culture.


Jose- I constantly think and reflect on the Thin Leather project you worked in collaboration with your father. It struck like a moving experience that brought multiple emotions to rise up the surface. I am interested in hearing you talk about the dialogues that happened through this collaboration. Since you touch on language and communication, what was it like having a conversation through the medium of painting?

Grace- A little back story about my dad, he was an activist when I was growing up. So, I grew up in this very particular way. My father was a professor at a university (the University of Illinois) that had an extremely racist mascot. It still exists unsanctioned where people to this day dress up like an Indian and dance around in buckskin and a headdress. After time, that experience and the system really pushed on my dad. We have talks about it and a lot of our conversations now are about… when you start to make work about identity it gets to the point where it’s going to hurt and then you are like, “Oh god, this is hard.” But, I think with that you have to decide whether you are going to go in or not. He stopped making such radically charged work but that history is still there. Now, his paintings are super meditative.

I went home for Christmas one year and he had a giant stack of paintings. I had never been invited to make art with him and he finally said, “Oh yeah, let's paint together.” It was interesting because it was healing, and it illuminated the dynamics of our relationship. I painted something and he painted over it. I pitched doing a show of these paintings over the phone and he said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”  To me it was probably more big than it was to him, but it was really important. I think during the whole process, when we were doing the painting back and forth, I tried to make it about language and about sifting through familial dynamics. I wanted to do this with my dad and sift through this thing, uncover history, and we can work back with these images or symbols. We kinda got there, but what was most interesting were the frustrating aspects where there was erasure happening.  I would paint something in Pima or O’odham; he would paint over it. My father is someone that doesn’t like text in his work, and I’m all about text, but I think he phrased it like, “our language is erased and that is why I am doing that.” It made sense when he said it. It was very sad and harsh, but I think that’s was why I wanted to do this work together… to even push those conversations between us.

When we first started to paint, we did these two giant pieces together. Those were the first we did and he kinda told me about his family. My great great grandfather was named Crouse Perkins and he was trilingual; he spoke O’odham, Spanish, and English. He was very religious; he would prophesize and walk around preaching to people door to door. He got his name because his shoes were worn thin, so he had thin soles, “thin leather…” There was something there… an urgency in language and perseverance .That was what the collaboration was about to me. It was about the same cycle. We may not be going door to door, but we are still trying to use language to prove our existence, prove our resilience in a way. Here we are, family, doing that together. I think we did eighteen maybe twenty pieces and I only showed twelve or so and they were all done through this process of adding and subtracting elements without really communicating about it, only sending parcels in the mail and having a short phone call here and there. They’ve become some of my favorite paintings because they genuinely reflect the depth of our relationship.

Jose- You recently had a beautiful window installation called The Sun Is Hot at Shadow Office in Downtown, Oakland, and I was mesmerized by the use of color, form, and texture.  How was the process like creating that installation in that specific space? Was this in conversation with the idea of home?

Grace- The desert to me is super formative. It’s really isolating, and it's heavy, and I think living there for so long you feel it as soon as you go outside.  You just feel the energy. Now that I live in a more urban place, it’s obviously very different because it’s so concentrated in a different way, and I find myself less connected to nature than I was there. So, I revisit it a lot as a place of grounding. Even if I can’t be there it helps just to think about it as an influence; even if it’s a color palette or something that I experience there.  The show, The Sun Is Hot, I guess it was kinda like a… way of talking about surrendering to the desert, using it as perspective, and putting things into place. An elder said “The sun is hot” to me in conversation earlier this year when we were talking about checks and balances. I recorded the whole conversation, but that phrase just burned into my brain.

It is weird because I just realized something about my work in the last year, that I reuse a lot of my stuff. This installation had a lot of that. I make prints of my masks, I make these structures, I repaint over them or rebuild them over time. It’s like I’m changing the meaning and flipping it. It’s also almost a cultural thing, the idea of using something, exhausting it, not just discarding something because I’ve used it… I really believe it working with what I have, like I made the masks as objects and then eventually they were performative and then one thing that I realized in the last few months is that instead of being live and performative, I realized “Oh god, I want to start documenting them and use them as vessels to portray something,” so I haven’t done that yet, but that is my next plan. They’re supposed to be vessels and they are emotive.

Jose- But they have been used. They have been used in certain projects right? I’ve seen images where Black Salt Collective members use them in the desert.

Grace- Oh yeah!

Jose- This is a perfect segue to talk about the collective you are part of and the intention for its existence.  Black Salt Collective is an empowering group of women of color that has motivated me and I’m sure other to continue to resist and demand the importance of marginalized voices in the art world.

Grace- Yeah, we started in 2012, Adee (Roberson) moved into my house. We would talk about art and what does it mean to be making. Also be so frustrated and alienated in it, because of who we are. Sylvia (Fanciulla Gentile) was also living there and she also joined our discussions. One night, we went outside and shot photographs, made a logo, and wrote a quick bio, which is still what we use today. It came together. Basically, we embody what we make and what we make embodies us. We had our first show the following spring and over these past three years, we have grown a lot. The more I look at what we’re doing, it is evident about how the work co-exists, and converses from these four separate sources-- the convergence of our identities and how they can work together to create a more vibrant existence and future.

We’ve traveled together, performed, done site specific collaboration through the desert and on my family land. We all really care about one another and that’s maybe where the power is really grounded.

In our last collaboration, we had a performance on the corner of 16th and Mission where we played the drums for about thirteen minutes. There were projections with these pointed questions behind us invoking people to reflect on land and the spatial politics that affect us all as women of color and how that reverberates through our individual and collective experiences. We asked “How did your people come here? Whose land are you on? What did you leave behind?” I think that is something we are trying to push through. We are also trying to break labels a bit. We’ve talked about how do we get shows where we say, we just make stuff in this intentioned space, but also leave less room to be so didactic. I think that is a problem with white institutions. They are so quick to label anything… So with this show we are curating, Visions into Infinite Archives, is where we want to have a little more room to expand on this work and bring more people into the fold.

Jose- How did Visions into Infinite Archives come about for Black Salt Collective and what are the intentions for the residency at SOMArts?

Grace- We were invited to apply. Through that process, from the first day we talked about it, I was like “Oh, we are going to have this installation where it’s going to be overwhelming.” I kept on using the word overwhelming. I imagined it being so many objects, so many voices, so many stories. We wanted to be very intentional about who we invited. In the show; we have elders, emerging artists, we got everyone there. With the title, Visions Into Infinite Archives, it’s more about abandoning the linear framework that is used to categorize the work from artists of color. Timelines give room for this really anthropological way of breaking down the work and compartmentalizing it. We have been doing this stuff forever and we are still doing it and people are still going to do it. That was the whole idea, presenting these people in conversation —something that felt inclusive, big, and also pulling so many artists we know on various levels... artists we admire, artists who are friends, artists who are mentors, but all work from this departure point of identity, people who want to be heard. I believe things need to be more visible, more open, and more honest; that is what is, what I feel is the strength of this massive show. We have 30 artists and performers total, all people of color who in the art world are often told they’re marginalized voices, but instead of giving them this space that is very literal, very bogged down, we just want it to be presented as an archive, a working breathing space, a map of this work, and the many dimensions it takes. It really is an intersection of so many people I am inspired by.

Opening reception featuring performances from Chochenyo activist and poet Vince Medina, Hermano Milagroso and jeepneys + SOME TIMES in direct dialogue with the exhibition and its themes, Thursday, January 14, 6–9pm (Free)

Film screening of short films and Bontoc Eulogy by Marlon E. Fuentes on Saturday, January 30, 12-4pm (Free)

Closing reception featuring  live sets by special guest musician Ryan Dennison (Deadrezkids, Fort Wingate, NM), as well as Tropic Green (Adee Roberson), plus an all-vinyl DJ set by Bay Area favorite Brown Amy (Hard French, Natural High) Thursday, February 4, 6–9pm (Free)


Trying To Make Sense of Something

an artist profile by Devon McKnight

It’s Saturday night, and we’re sitting in Wardell McNeal’s bedroom. Two distracting black kittens are investigating my new smells and playing with anything worth pouncing. It’s a small space in East Oakland. The room is bookshelves. Shelves filled with philosophy, fiction, poetry, Derrida, Baudrillard, Murakami. 

Wardell sits at a tiny desk with an overhead light where he works on his paintings in the small amount of non-working hours he has. His daily grind is trouble shooting marketing strategies and product design at A2B in San Francisco, a company that designs and manufactures electric bikes.  It’s one of those jobs where you’re never really not working, a lot of after hours and late nights. So the weekends have become Wardell’s “studio time.”

He contemplates his everyday sketches. Sketches he makes on the BART commutes from the East Bay to the City or in bars after work where he unwinds with a shot and a beer. These drawings are where I first encountered Wardell under his Instagram name @post_structure. To me these sketches are the work, constant figures of the downtrodden. I was drawn to the mess, the history of line, the prolific-ness, the everyday, the seen, the felt truth of it all.

The sketches exist as themselves, as practice, and as reference. Ideation. They’re him, they’re what he sees and they’re what he sees in others. They’re the overlooked bodies of a society who forgets.

I’m reminded of modern masters like Matisse and Picasso that drew constantly. Constantly sketching models. Contemplating the world through the figure. Wardell wants to perfect his skill. He wants to challenge himself. He wants to know everything. He’s hungry. He shows me pages in his stack of sketchbooks where thoughts were born, where they appear again in another more elevated form, and then later in one of his paintings. Having never been to art school where one presumably learns to paint and draw and sculpt, he has recently embarked on teaching himself. He reads books about Picasso’s Guernica, studies how-to’s on the steps of painting and references Caravaggio’s depictions of horrifying scenes. He sees a Barry McGee show and is inspired. He visits St. Louis and Ferguson and a concept is born.  He is a student of life.  Wardell is an observer, seeing the fine print in the everyday, slowly connecting ever-present parts of his life.  

I ask him where the people in his drawings come from. It’s complicated, but it goes back to his first models, his younger brothers who are twins. Long face, round nose, larger lips. Back in the day he’d draw his brothers with exaggerated features and they’d hate it.

But this was also Wardell creating character. You can see his sketches mimic his mood. A long BART ride after a late night working delivers sleepy passengers, or the weight of financial and racial burdens gives way to a long-necked, slumped-over figure.  

I struggle as I write this to name the facial expression: 

-Tired, but a specific tired, tied tightly to a constant head above water and the water is thick with blood

-Disbelief, in the blatant destruction of the body, your body, and a world that is complicit

-Profound loss, as a daily, every single day emotion 

I ask when his practice of daily sketches and Instagram posts started, “sketching and ‘gramming sparsely 2.5 years ago, then started being religious about it around November of last year.”

In late November of 2014, Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown was acquitted of any murder charges and the nation erupted in protests. 

These gestures are the sadness of today, the weight that our generation carries from home to job and out with friends and back home and in to bed with us. 

For the majority of people of color in this country, everyday is like quicksand, eating them alive as they walk down the street. But Wardell stays hungry for more knowledge and skill and life, day in and day out, in the midst of a society where young black bodies have become our detritus.

When I ask Wardell why he draws, he says, “I’m just trying to make sense of something.”

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Somewhere between Mulder and Scully

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.

You can see more of Katie Dorame’s work via her website, katiedorame.com. Images from her recent exhibition, Alien Apostles, in Ithaca, NY can be viewed on Handwerker Gallery’s Facebook page.