The storefront gallery on Sutter Street is still upon entering, even hushed. Inside, there are numerous objects at rest: bundles and rounded forms of various textiles gently lie on pedestals. Then, faintly at first, the sound of a dense object being dragged across ground can be heard towards the back of the gallery.
Natani Notah’s exhibition Normal Force (through September 3 at Rebecca Camacho Presents) invites the viewer into phenomenological contemplation. The exhibition mainly presents the artist’s sculptural work and accompanying photographs, in addition to a drawing and looped video work. Notah’s sculptures, collected and secondhand garments reworked with belts, faux fur, and intricate beading, have an uncanny relationship to the body; they simultaneously appear like distinct organisms and disembodied human limbs.
There is a desire to hold these soft sculptures and sense their weight. Notah’s work, as the artist has written, explores “Native American identity through the lens of Diné womanhood” and “dares to imagine a world where Native sensibilities are magnified.” These elements of Notah’s practice are abundantly present throughout the materials and processes in this exhibition, like an apron bearing the Land O’Lakes logo obscured by the artist’s beadwork intervention in Outfoxed.
At the back of the gallery are two bookends. An older drawing, Over 25 Million Lives, can be read as a preamble for this current body of work. Dragged is a newer piece: a looped video in which a body pulls the dense weight of the sculpture Outfoxed across a hard floor. The video bridges Notah’s past live performances with a new form, now performed for the camera. The piece functions as a sketch towards the artist’s work still on the horizon. The curatorial gesture to include these works places the exhibition within the concept and chronology of Notah’s output, as well as allude to the connective threads of Notah’s interdisciplinary practice.
The title of the exhibition refers to a law of physics in which two objects make contact, exerting pressure on one another as they move in opposite directions. This experience can be painful, as one might feel unexpectedly bumping into someone. The notion of normal force can be connected to the experiences of Native people in oppressive colonialist systems. However, contact and interrelation also extend to community and care. The experience of normal force then could also be enlivening, as one might feel running into the arms of family or an old friend.
This latter sentiment is particularly underscored by two photographs in the main gallery installed across two sculptures. In One Antonym of Catch is Release, a sculpture is held aloft in the manner one might hold a caught fish. The firm grasp of the fist may initially seem hard, but further time spent with the photograph reveals a sense of strength and reclamation. The sculpture itself, Trawled, rests on a pedestal opposite the photograph. Its elongated form of black leather lies across the pedestal, as if it too is an outstretched arm. Black fur extends outward from one end, and the other comes to a rounded head with a beaded pattern in brightly saturated blue, in a circular pattern alluding to tree rings.
Another photograph, There Are No Synonyms for Cradleboard, shows a body softly holding a sculpture made of tan leather, black fur, and gold beadwork, bound at one end by a belt. One hand is inserted inside the leather form, becoming an extension of the body. The cradling gesture, protective and stable, echoes back to the title, referring to types of baby carriers used by Native peoples. The sculpture, Strapped, similarly rests opposite its related photograph. In its physical form in the gallery, however, the tightness of the belt feels pronounced, a unmistakable constraint.
Dualities exist throughout the exhibition, reinforced by Notah’s poetic titling paired with materials that hold multiplicity. One Synonym of Tumor is Enemy uses a shirt from the artist’s father wrapped in a round bundle around protrusions of fur and richly blue fabric with beadwork. The outlying beige beading surrounds larger black beads grouped in the center, forming a void. Both the title and the emotional impact of the beadwork foreground pain and loss. However, as this ache is held by a soft embrace of the well-worn shirt, there is also an enduring presence of love.
“Natani Notah: Normal Force” runs through September 3 at Rebecca Comacho Presents in San Francisco. More info here.