Poet splashes into art scene with photography
Ungelbah Davila had never actually displayed her fine art photography anywhere. Her debut to the world as an artist was this past weekend at the 98th Annual Santa Fe Indian Market.
“I just never thought I was good enough to be on this side of it,” said Davila, Diné.
“I got it and I was completely bewildered.” This was not the direction she ever saw herself going. Davila has always been very creative. Before becoming a photographer, she was a writer. “I’ve loved photography for a very long time, but my degree was in poetry,” Davila said. “When you study poetry you find yourself looking at the world in a completely different way. You’re always looking for that moment you can make into something more beautiful.”
The principles of poetry have been translated to her work in fine art photography. The collection she created this year focused on iconic portraits of Indian Country’s most influential artists. This project is what got her selected for the IM:EDGE gallery showcase that started in 2015. The event is meant to showcase up-and-coming contemporary Native artists.
Davila along with 12 other Navajo artists were selected for this year’s IM: EDGE. This year, she was also selected to be one of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts’ Discovery Fellows.
This is the reason she submitted her work to be juried for the first time. It doesn’t stop there. Her portrait of Santa Clara Pueblo potter Kaa Folwell garnered a second-place ribbon. “My goal in this fellowship with SWAIA is to photograph as many Native artists as I can so that I can capture those authentic moments and create those iconic photos that people will ultimately remember them by,” Davila said, “in the same way that we have photos of Elvis or Salvador Dali or any 20th-Century master.” She calls this project “Indigenous Masters.” “Our masters have been neglected in that medium,” Davila said.
She likes to know the artists she works with and uses this knowledge to bring out their personalities. Her goal is to capture an artist’s authentic self. “I love doing portrait photography because I find that I have a knack at really bringing out people’s unique personalities and finding something in them that they might not show in just the average photograph,” she said. “You can have the most beautiful artwork,” she said, “but if there’s not documentation of who you are and your spirits coming through in a photo and it’s going to live on past with you alongside your artwork, I think it’s a disservice not only to the artist but to the world.”
When Davila took portraits of Virgil Ortiz, one of the most innovative Pueblo potters, she decided to take classic headshots before taking photos of him in his natural element, creating pottery. “I’ve known Virgil a long time and I saw a face of him, a side of him, I’ve never seen before,” Davila said. Davila saw Ortiz relax into his natural state of being, where his spirit shone the most. “I really like to get to know my subjects,” Davila said. “I love that I’m working with other creative people and finding those special moments is different with every single of them.”
Her style is influenced by classic Americana that’s reminiscent of rockabilly. A good example is “Turquoise & Cotton Candy, Fair Time series.” The photo is of a Navajo woman wearing turquoise jewelry holding cotton candy in her hands. The fair can be seen in the background. The pastel palette along with the classic pin-up style curls and red lips make this photo look like a blast from the past, even though it was taken last year. With such a strong debut at the competitive Indian Market, Davila can look forward to a burgeoning career.