The Tongva artist Mercedes Dorame explores themes of political and social justice to convey the challenges of living in a place that once belonged to her ancestors, a place that she feels connected to but has no physical access to. Dorame has served as a cultural resources consultant on Tongva sites in the Los Angeles Basin during the past 20 years, working with her community to rebury her ancestors in a respectful way under NAGPRA guidelines. The Tongva tribe has no federal recognition and therefore no reservation land or gathering place. They lack a physical space for culture, to congregate, for ceremony or reburying their ancestors. Assimilation, time, death, shame, and the city of Los Angeles itself have all worked to erode the Tongva cultural heritage. Dorame’s work explores culture and ceremony as outcomes of the need to tie one’s existence to the land, even among the dispossessed, helping to reclaim and reimagine Tongva heritage by exploring themes of reconnection and preserving culture. Using her practice to reopen portals of memory and to reconnect with ancestors, she creates humble ceremonial monuments in landscapes—with nature itself as her canvas—where she adorns the land with yarn, mud, concrete, and cinnamon, among other materials. In gallery spaces, she has created elaborate maps that represent visions of the night sky. Her work weaves back together the loose ends that have been passed down through the generations in order to make a new expression of her cultural heritage.
“A lot of this work is about trying to...take something that has a really difficult past, opening that up, and [allowing] for movement forward to keep it alive. There is a simple..., we are still here.”