Demian Dine’ Yazhi’ Studio (Portland, OR), 2012

Portland based visual artist Demian Dine’ Yazhi’ wants you to tell him where we are going. Working with the Queer Union at Pacific Northwest College of Art and Cock Gallery, he is working a group show entitled, Where Do We Go From Here: HIV/AIDS Related Art & Activism. In the call for entries he writes, “This exhibition recognizes the significance of dialogue within the realms of art and/as political action. It aims to highlight the many intersections shared by art and activism and asks participants to reach beyond their comfort zones in order to realize magnificent futurities, bridge generational gaps and nurture our fierce phantasies.” Visual AIDS talks to Demian Dine‘ Yazhi’ about his art, influences, and where he would like to go. Scroll down to the bottom for links on how to submit to the exhibition and to view his work.

VISUAL AIDS: Your work seems like an evolving exploration of your queer place in the world, influenced by those who came before you. Who are some of the artists that inspire you and how did you come across them?

Within the past few years I’ve considered the spaces I’ve occupied, as well as the challenges I have encountered that inspired significant change and growth. Like most people, I struggled with my identity--namely normative masculinity issues, being queer, and my Native north american heritage--and it didn’t help that there was a severe lack of positive role models in my hometown.
It wasn’t until I encountered the music coming out of the Riot Grrrl movement of the early 90s (Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, to name a few) that I began exploring the field of feminism as a way to explore the awkward tension I experienced living in a queer, Native american body. Cindy Sherman came under my radar through the collaborative work of Tammy Rae Carland and Kathleen Hanna, which lead me to text-based artists like Barbara Krueger and Jenny Holzer. It immediately became clear to me that addressing sociopolitical concerns through the visual arts could prove to be a useful and powerful tool.

My work is an exploration of the spaces other people have navigated and opened, and my work in the materialization of hope. I dream of spaces where the living and the dead come together to reconcile the past—and also to heal—so that we can thrive and, in the words of Tammy Rae Carland, “live in the place where we are truly alive, present, safe, and accounted for.”

More recently I have been inspired by the artwork of David Wojnarowicz, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, James Luna, Cathy Busby, Marcel Duchamp, the writing of Joy Harjo, Andrea Smith, Inger Christensen, and the music of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Laura Ortman, Bleached, Grimes, and Cassie Ramone.
VISUAL AIDS: In terms of the subjects you explore, I wonder what you see as some of the connections between desire, Indigenous awareness, surveillance and HIV/AIDS?
As seen through the perspective of power structures, they are dangerous on a variety of levels because they pose a threat to the continuation of the subservient, media-driven model citizen—what Michel Foucault calls “docile bodies.” I think that the main connection between desire, Indigenous awareness, surveillance and HIV/AIDS is the affective forces called fear. Fear of the homosexual body. Fear of the Native or Mexican or African or Asian or Arab body. Fear of the rebel, the outcast, and the intellectual. Fear of the sexually liberated. Fear of the nude male body. The list goes on, and it is continually expanding.
VISUAL AIDS: In the call for entries you wonder, “what is to be done and Where Do We Go From Here?” If you were to answer this question only for yourself, what would you say?
I try to imagine a land without borders. I dream of never having to wonder what it would be like to live in a post-apocalyptic landscape in search of anti-retroviral medication just so one can survive. But until then, I believe the best we can do is help to bridge a large generational gap within the queer community. As a result of the AIDS crisis, a lot of beautiful men passed away, and with that, their knowledge and guidance as positive role models.

Luckily, many queers left forms and forces behind (art, literature, films, and affective energies), and there are queers who survived those years and who continue to carry the torch, but queer culture has changed dramatically since then. There is an entire generation who are now growing up with a new perspective of HIV/AIDS. Instead of the horrible stigma that was associated with the disease when I was growing up, we now have the potential to positively impact the image of the disease that has been influenced and altered endlessly by the media, religious institutions, government apparatuses, and pharmaceutical companies.

Once there was compassion within the community, at some point that was replaced with fear, denial, judgment, and cruelty, but I have faith that there will be a shift back to compassion and understanding. With this new influx of critical inquiry, detached nostalgia, remembrance, and the astounding resurgence of archived material and truth-telling from those years, the possibilities of new moves and radical change begin to surface more and more. There is a flame that someone lit at the beginning of all this and it is still burning strong within all of our hearts. It’s just a matter of learning how to feed that fire and nurture the possibilities embedded in each movement and wave of that fire.
VISUAL AIDS: You also mention that these questions lead us down a path. And when you describe who is with us on the path you mention the “returning dead”, what does this mean?
All the heroes who came before. All the queer spirits who commune with the living on a consistent basis. It could be Felix Gonzalez-Torres or Vito Russo. It could be Freddie Mercury and Klaus Nomi. It could be Bob Rafsky and David Wojnarowicz. Or even Matthew Shephard, Arthur Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, or Susan Sontag. It could be all of them, as well as many heroes who are not at the top of the “queer role-call.”

Or, it could be about the first time you came across Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, in an art gallery in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It could be walking around an exhibition honoring the phenomenal work and progress that had been made by our predecessors. It could be about putting all that into perspective and coming to the realization that the path we’ve just walked down is lined in the blood, sweat, semen, and tears of all our heroes and phantasmatic lovers—who are never really gone.
VISUAL AIDS: The call for the show, and your work seem to speak to a need and desire for community. Who is your community and what do you get and give with them?
I feel very fortunate with the communities I’ve been able to enter over the past few years. Living in Portland, Oregon for the last six years has definitely given me more options and affords me the ability to travel throughout the Western portion of the United States.

That said, my community spans across the vast body of land known as the North American continent. At moments when I felt as though I was lost and trapped, I had the support of friends and lovers between Seattle and San Francisco. Most of my immediate community has relocated to the Midwest and the East Coast, but the Internet and telecommunication allows for dialogue to occur whenever it is necessary.

There is an overwhelming amount of support and passion that comes out from the people who inspire me and I honestly have to admit that I would have not been able to be as productive as an artist without their continued encouragement and knowledge. Eric Stanley was a huge influence to my practice when I began my art education nearly four years ago. The beautiful and poetic nature of Jody Jock’s photography helped shed a light in a field that I was losing interest in. Daniel Trauten and Louis Chavez introduced me to a love that was brotherly, accessible, healthy, and that provided me with stability. My family definitely provides me with support and love whenever possible, even if my artwork perplexes them from time to time. And the lovers I’ve brought into my life over the last few years have been an utter blessing at every waking moment.

Each bond and relationship allows for nurturing and healing in a world that often feels suffocating and unresponsive, yet the beautiful memory shared between others and myself has formed new constellations in the glorious light of the nite sky.

Call for Entries: Where Do We Go From Here
Demian Dine' Yazhi': Heterogeneous Homosexual