Just past the pinball machines at the front of Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar is a cozy area framed by paintings hanging on the wall. They are part of the exhibition “Soy yo,” which translates to “I am” or “this is me.” Among the two dozen works is zaka’an’s “Soy la tierra.” In the self-portrait, zaka’an’s face converges with the landscape. Her hair becomes one with the mountains in the background, and hunter green trees stand parallel to her jawline. Pink blossoms from prickly pear cacti provide pops of color. They are sacred plants to her Indigenous Mexican ancestors.
“They are also some of the most stubborn plants. They survive some of the most torrid desert weather,” said zaka’an. “I was really thinking about myself and my self-reflection of my life.”
zaka’an has grandmothers from the White Earth Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota and Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. Her second self-portrait is vastly different in style, but both paintings reflect her research into epigenetics — the study of changes caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself — and how experiences shared with her grandmothers have been passed down.
“Soy yo” is one of several satellite shows of yәhaw̓: Together we lift up the sky, a yearlong Indigenous-led project. The origin of the word yәhaw̓ is derived from a Coast Salish story of people from many tribes who come together to lift the sky after the Creator left it too low. They spoke different languages but they all learned one word, yәhaw̓, which means to “go forward, to do it.” The centerpiece of yәhaw̓ is an expansive show at King Street Station.
The exhibition at Vermillion in Capitol Hill allows for a more specific focus. “Soy yo” centers emerging and professional femme and female artists. Eileen Jimenez (Otomí) depicts portraits of goddesses. She drew inspiration from the resilient and beautiful women in her life. Dovey Emmy Martinez’s painting shows two women in an embrace. In her artist biography, Martinez (Lenca) wrote that she creates art to document her truth and to show that she’s proud of her culture.
Guest Curator Jessica Ramirez explained that it was important for the artists to tell their stories without having to physically be in the room.
“That’s why it was really important for me for artists to dig into their own artist bios, their own artist statements, particularly for those who have never shown in a gallery before,” said Ramirez. “Introspectively understand why it is that they create art. Who are they creating it for? Whether it’s just for themselves, or for their larger community.”
Ramirez went on to say the works have an overarching theme of the care and nurture that femme and female folks provide.
In addition to the numerous art exhibitions, yәhaw̓ includes programming, mentorships and artist residencies. zaka’an participated in a 10-day residency in December at Centrum in Port Townsend. She described the experience as spiritually rewarding. It reminded her of the time she was a student at Cornish College of the Arts, but this time around she was surrounded by other artists with similar backgrounds.
The group spent countless hours together, from studio time to dinners to late-night talks. As she put it, she was with a community of people with the same heart.
“Indigenous people, we have a lot of similar stories, regardless of the places in the world that we’re from,” said zaka’an. “We have a lot of the similar stories, and our shared experiences and our shared fight, too — our shared resistance. And I think that was what was so fulfilling.”
zaka’an has always been protective of her artwork, and this is the first time she’s showing in an exhibition. Participating in yәhaw̓ has been a reawakening for her. Art has always been a source of refuge and now, because of encouragement, she’s beginning to feel more comfortable sharing her gift with others.
Currently, she’s working on a series about American Indian laws. For her, art and advocacy are intertwined. “If I’m going to be imparting some of my stories, I want to be imparting knowledge, too, and histories that are not told. The stories that are not told in our schools.”
On May 5, “Soy yo” will come down and another group of works will go up for a show titled “Unidos Levantamos el Cielo.” It’s the Spanish translation of “Together we lift up the sky.” When that exhibition wraps up on June 8, the final Indigenous Latinx show will be on display at Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery in White Center.
Each of the works in “Soy yo” is absorbing in its own way. Vermillion has carved out space for a group of artists to share personal narratives. For Ramirez, the show is significant.
“It elevates and displays a group of artists who are not often seen in traditional gallery spaces,” said Ramirez. “It’s not often that you can go to a gallery and see art all by Brown, Indigenous women who are selflessly putting on display a really important message of who we are and why we’re here.”
WHAT: “Soy Yo”
WHEN: Runs until May 5
WHERE: Vermillion, 1508 11th Ave., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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Read the full April 24 - 30 issue.
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