On the anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy, transdisciplinary artist Demian DinéYazhi' read an ekphrastic, long-form poem about one of America’s deepest traumas: indigenous genocide. DinéYazhi' explained that the poem, "An Infected Sunset," was published by, designed by, written by, and performed for people of color—contrasting with other TBA works that were performed with white audiences in mind.
In their opening statement, DinéYazhi’ read a land acknowledgement and then contextualized "An Infected Sunset" as their #noDAPL version of Joni Mitchell's “Woodstock." The statement contained significant, catchy phrases like: “Nothing is more punk than indigenous and people of color” and “the sanctity of sex is as sacred as water.”
Earlier this year, DinéYazhi’ read sections of "An Infected Sunset" at the Whitney, and toured the poem through U.S. cities like Tulsa, St. Louis, and Philadelphia and Indigenous reservations like the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation and Sioux land at Standing Rock.
DinéYazhi’ is among the first artists I worked with in college and they made an especially powerful work immediately following the Pulse Massacre and the exo-judicial murders of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling. Their work is poignant, arresting, and ultra contemporary, moving the past into the present without pretension.
Three videos cycled behind DinéYazhi’ as they read—footage of stone, fire, clouds, sheep, water reflecting sunlight, and sifting tidal sand. DinéYazhi’ read for over an hour, interrupted only by musical accompaniment from Holland Andrews (who usually performs as Like a Villain). Her aural bloom of choral vocals entered softly, but it unquestioningly changed how the audience read DinéYazhi’’s work, defusing the intensity like a dampening pedal.
DinéYazhi’'s timbre was strong, unwavering, vulnerable, and at times boiling with rage and grief. In silent pauses the audience explored the depths of DinéYazhi’'s posed hypotheticals. They questioned how Whitney Houston making white men desirable in The Bodyguard is supposed to cure salmon and whale cancer.
Naming several famous names, DinéYazhi’ incorporated their historical and cultural associations into the poem. They compared the record sales of David Bowie, Adele, and Tina Turner to conceptualize how many First Nations people the U.S. has murdered. They mentioned Matthew Shepard not as a person but as a cultural anxiety—like the pall of the AIDS Crisis under which DinéYazhi’ came out. The poem touched on the gay and lesbian appeal of Beth Ditto and Patsy Cline’s emotional translations of love, lust, and loneliness.
Naming scientific chemical names, DinéYazhi’ listed the chemicals threatening ancestral lands and listed boys’ names, (almost anonymous but unmistakably European-origin) who they had laid with, longed for, and lost. They named the colonized shores of Rooster Rock State Park where I suspect the background visuals were taken. DinéYazhi’ imagined a time before colonization, before erased histories and geographical features, and throughout they remained unapologetically indigenous and unapologetically queer. "An Infected Sunset" earned a standing ovation from the TBA Festival audience.
We're wrapping up our TBA 2018 coverage, but we have a few more things to say! Keep up with us for our reviews and critical impressions at: portlandmercury.com/tba