The Many Voices of Raven Chacon’s While Hissing

TUCSON, Arizona — What does resistance look and sound like in the 21st century? 

It’s a question posed by Raven Chacon’s While hissing. The exhibition amplifies the voices of Indigenous women and issues a collective call to resistance through visual art, musical composition and performance, and community. 

Born in Fort Defiance on the Navajo Nation, composer, performer, and installation artist Raven Chacon became the first Indigenous person to receive a Pulitzer Prize when he won one in 2022 for his “Voiceless Mass” composition created for chamber orchestra, sine wave frequencies, and pipe organ. 

Chacon’s extensive oeuvre also includes Sweet Land (2020), a Manifest Destiny opera that he composed with 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music recipient Du Yun, and “Repellent Fence” (2015), an ephemeral land art installation that bisected the US-Mexico border, realized by Postcommodity while Chacon was part of the collective. 

In While hissing, Chacon draws inspiration from Zitkála-Šá (1876–1938), a Lakota composer, musician, writer, and activist who collaborated with William F. Hanson on The Sun Dance Opera (1913), which is widely considered the first Indigenous opera. Zitkála-Šá was born on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota and sent as a child to a missionary boarding school in Wabash, Indiana.  

Originally, Chacon sought to honor her life and work through an orchestral piece for 43 instruments, according to the artist’s contextualizing essay in his 2022 book For Zitkála-Šá. However, his exhaustive research prompted a dramatic pivot that’s reflected in the sublime prints in this exhibition, which were part of his installation for the 2022 Whitney Biennial and will be shown in his 2024 exhibition at Harwood Museum of Art in New Mexico. 

Chacon opted to write new compositions for 13 contemporary musicians, composers, and scholars, including Carmina Escobar, Joy Harjo (Muscogee), and Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache), each piece informed by the subject’s creative practice and their conversations with the artist. 

For each composition, he’s created a graphic musical score and a set of instructions that allow performers to bring their own interpretations, sounds, and actions to the music. Rather than music notation with notes and a five-line staff, graphic scores use visual symbols that provide flexibility about how scores are performed.

The show’s title, While hissing, comes from Chacon’s directions for performing a piece for flute and breath that he composed for Odawa First Nation composer and musician Barbara Croall. On the graphic score, he’s placed variations on horizontal lines adjacent to small shapes, which appear in four groupings. Chacon describes the graphic scores in his For Zitkála-Šá series (2017–20), which incorporate ambiguous designs and symbolism culled from diverse sources, such as tribal geometries, numerology, and Western music notation, as portraits of the artists they’re written for. By using symbols that aren’t readily identifiable to every viewer, he speaks to the power of Indigenous knowledge and language, while also suggesting that acquiring and sharing knowledge isn’t a passive experience.

Instruments are also integral to the show. The For Zitkála-Šá series of single-color digital prints on rag paper hangs inside a single gallery that additionally includes a snare drum with black feathers installed beside a trio of sticks. Together, the drum, “Black Rock Stick,” “Deep Water Stick,” and “Sunset Stick” comprise Chacon’s “Three Song Instruments” (2021). The instruments are surrounded by a circle of bright light that illuminates the ontological nature of music and song. Placed on a short wall between other elements of Chacon’s exhibition, the instruments appear as guardians watching over Indigenous cultures past, present, and future.

Snare drums are often associated with the colonial United States and the history of the US military. Here, the drum speaks to both colonizing culture and Indigenous survival and resistance, in addition to the question of who creates and controls the means of communication and storytelling.

On the long wall opposite Chacon’s graphic scores, images of three Indigenous women appear, disappear, and reappear, countering Western notions of linear time. For “Three Songs” (2021), a seven-minute three-channel looped video, Chacon filmed Sage Bond (Diné), Jehnean Washington (Yuchi), and Mary Ann Emarthle (Seminole) singing in their own languages and playing a snare drum on Navajo, Cherokee, and Seminole lands that are historical sites of violence and displacement. 

With “Three Songs” as well as the For Zitkála-Šá series, Chacon affirms the leadership role of American Indian, First Nations, and Mestiza women in 21st-century resistance, while also underscoring the value of seeking out multiple voices, engaging in collaboration, and choosing mediums that best convey the ideas at hand.

And like his larger body of work, this exhibition centers issues related to contested spaces and split identities, and the ways they’re navigated by Indigenous peoples. The show is particularly impactful amid the current political landscape, as some stories and lives are privileged and others are erased.

While probing the sounds of resistance, and elevating those who create them, While hissing makes clear the importance of listening deeply to the land, to history, to one’s ancestors, and to community. 

Raven Chacon: While hissing continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson (265 South Church Avenue, Tucson, Arizona) through December 17. The exhibition was organized by Laura Copelin and Julio César Morales with assistance from Alexis Wilkinson. 

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