Composer Raven Chacon presents works at the Whitney Biennial

Composer Raven Chacon relaxes at her home in downtown Albuquerque. The composer/musician/artist has just been invited to the Whitney Biennial. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Albuquerque composer Raven Chacon evokes concerts from noise and recordings of massacres.

Multi-award-winning artist Diné will present his work at the Whitney Biennial in New York on April 6.

“Repellent Fence” (Postcommodity, 2015) by Raven Chacon. (Courtesy of Raven Chacon)

The show marks the second time that Chacon has been invited to this prestigious event, considered one of the most important of its kind in the world. Critics regard the exhibition as a barometer, both anticipated and debated, of the trends it reveals in American art. Participation can skyrocket an artist’s career.

“It’s quite an honor to be one of the new artists to have participated twice,” said Chacon, who participated in the event in 2007 as part of the Postcommodity collective.

Chacon brings works from 20 years of sound research. He has created 13 graphic scores dedicated to Indigenous female composers. His inspiration came from the life of Zitkála-Åá, a Dakota writer, editor, translator, musician and teacher who lived at the turn of the last century.

“For Zitkála-Šá Series: For Laura Ortman (2017)” by Raven Chacon. (Courtesy of Raven Chacon)

“She was an interesting woman,” Chacon said. “She was one of the first Native American composers. She wrote a piece called “The Sun Dance Opera”.

Initially, Chacon wanted to dedicate a symphony to him (he also writes chamber music). But the shape seemed too grand.

Instead, he has written graphic scores for contemporary female Native composers, including artists such as Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek Nation), the current American Poet Laureate; and First Nations singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Zitkála-Åá was “advocating for Native American voting rights,” Chacon said. “Some people saw it as joining the oppressors. I think there was a lot of conflict on all levels. I feel there’s a certain (alignment) between what these women had to navigate. I call them “Portraits”.

Three Songs (2021) by Raven Chacon. (Courtesy of Raven Chacon)

The exhibit also features a three-channel video installation filmed in Navajo, Cherokee, and Seminole land featuring women singing stories of massacres or kidnappings in their native language. Today, these areas are again contested for mining and other uses. Chacon accompanied their songs with a snare drum to evoke the rhythm of the American cavalry.

Born in Fort Defiance, Arizona, Chacon grew up in Albuquerque, where he received his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of New Mexico. He received his master’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts. Today, he teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He has also taught at UNM, Bard College, Colorado College, and California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Raven Chacon performing. (Courtesy of Raven Chacon)

Her father was from Mora, while her mother was from Chinle, Arizona.

“They think like artists, but they’re not artists,” he said. “Our parents were very encouraging.

Chacon took piano lessons at a young age. Although not limited to the keyboard, learning to read music would prove essential.

His grandfather sang traditional Navajo songs. Chacon leaned more towards heavy metal and experimental music, navigating the New Mexico band scene.

He describes his solo sets as “noise”.

“It’s the culmination of a lot of things,” he said. “It’s probably the influence of heavy metal. It became something that I developed into music.

After the Biennale, he was invited in residence at the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage in Philadelphia.

Composer Raven Chacon is seen at her home in downtown Albuquerque. The composer/musician/artist has just been invited to the Whitney Biennial. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The Biennale takes place from April 6 to September 5. To date, more than 3,600 influential and innovative artists have participated in a biennial or annual Whitney. The event began as an annual exhibition in 1932; the first biennial was held in 1973. It helped propel artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Jeff Koons to center stage.

Chacon will fly to the Whitney in April “if COVID allows everyone to do such a thing.”

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