SOME OF THE ARTWORKS SIT BEHIND museum glass or gallery doors, but murals demand to be noticed. Whether designed for a local business, to commemorate an event, or to tell a story, murals often explore themes specific to their place. One thing outdoor artworks don’t do is lend themselves to traditional exhibitions. But in Nani Chacon’s SITE Santa Fe show Spectrum, the celebrated New Mexican painter seizes the indoor opportunity to explore the Diné creation story along with broader themes of Native American identity.
For nearly 20 years, Chacon has made a name for herself as a muralist. “I grew up studying graffiti and outdoor art,” says the Gallup-born artist, who is Diné and Chicana and now lives in Albuquerque. “Working on a big scale comes naturally to me.”
Her vibrant and detailed murals, which feature finely crafted figures and innovative designs, are scattered throughout New Mexico and can be seen in New York, California, and even Russia.
SITE Santa Fe’s Brandee Caoba curated the exhibit in the space’s experimental-art-focused SITElab gallery. For her, Chacon’s masterful career in making public art is heightened by how keenly she injects a personal narrative into her work. “I’m fascinated by how Nani traces her lineage through her art,” says Caoba. “In developing the show, we were striving for something that felt like a conversation between the art and the artist.”
Chacon has built a reputation as a muralist, but she pushes back against such labeling. “I am a painter first and foremost, and drawing is crucial to my practice,” she says.
Spectrum comprises eight large-scale paintings, two site-specific “woven murals,” and a collection of sketches, drawings, and personal archival materials. It features works of jaw-dropping scale in addition to accompanying materials that help contextualize Chacon’s many-faceted process. A triptych of small outdoor murals, which reference her originals in Mora, Albuquerque, and Chinle, Arizona, adorn the museum’s west exterior wall.
Although it is Chacon’s first museum exhibition and largely contains new work, it also functions as a retrospective. “We knew it was going to be a challenge to show a muralist in a museum space,” says Caoba. “We wanted to capture the impact of Nani’s public practice, even if we couldn’t showcase the breadth of the physical work.”
To address this, Caoba created a “mural map,” in print and online, which directs viewers to Chacon’s 19 mural sites across New Mexico and offers insight into the artist’s inspiration and process. Chacon will also work with local students to complete a newly commissioned mural in SITE Santa Fe’s education lab, continuing her career in art instruction.
Spectrum’s paintings depict elements of the Diné creation story, a complex tale rich in symbolism and magic that takes place across four worlds and ultimately champions humanity’s power over destructive forces. The characters populating these works are sometimes overtly feminine, like the graceful figure in Sky People, whose smooth hand, tipped with gleaming nails, acts as a perch for a semitransparent blue jay.
In studying Four Genders Were Born, one’s eye might first be drawn to the painting’s overlapping golden orbs, whose shades range from ocher to pale lemon, progressively lightening as they reach the work’s central core. The orbs are flanked by two human bodies, both of which have male and female characteristics, linking hands. The painting would be remarkable enough for its masterful use of light and color, but its provocative figures, which reference the show’s titular spectrum, make for a work that practically reverberates with impact.
“In a dark world, creative beauty is an act of radical resistance,” says Caoba, who became SITE’s head curator in 2020. “The rise of white supremacy and the need to confront racist structures has become a bigger priority for artists in the past couple years.”
Because the Indigenous storytelling tradition is largely an oral one, Chacon’s work is simultaneously artistic and conservational. Caoba is excited about the show’s potential to stir conversation and challenge convention. “Just as much as art conveys the narrative of the artist, it also acts as a powerful catalyst for change, for advocacy,” Caoba explains. “Nani’s telling of these ancient stories contemporizes them, and it also preserves them.”
A pair of back-to-back “woven murals,” Don’t Whistle at Night and Our Gods Walk Among Us, occupy the gallery’s giant central wall. “Growing up, Diné children are told not to whistle in the dark, because it might conjure bad spirits,” says Chacon. “Our Gods Walk Among Us is a reminder to be cognizant of the world beyond, which can provide us with blessings but also contains darkness.”
Chacon intricately arranged strands of yarn across hundreds of finishing nails to make these pieces. With their geometric patterns and primary colors, the works suggest a kind of deconstructed version of traditional Navajo weavings. “Even though their design was carefully planned, the fact that they were installed on-site gives them an element of improvisation,” says Chacon, who says the mural names will resonate with Indigenous viewers. “They are two pieces of a conversation that is going to be understood by Native people.”
Spectrum draws on Chacon’s technical and creative prowess to offer Native audiences new takes on those familiar stories. But it also introduces outside viewers to traditions filled with beauty and metaphysical wonder. SITE Santa Fe’s unflinchingly modern setting, in the city’s historic Railyard District, might seem like a tricky place to pull off a show whose themes include primeval stories, but history exists in real time. In this exhibition, Chacon alchemizes past and present.
Run the Gamut
See the exhibition. Spectrum is on display through August 21 at SITE Santa Fe. 1606 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe; 505-989-1199.
Follow the mural trail. See a detailed map of Nani Chacon’s murals throughout New Mexico and the Southwest, as well as a video tracking the development of a 2021 collaborative mural.