For Yavapai-Apache photographer and visual artist Alejandra Rubio, empathy is at the core of the artistic process. Her latest exhibition puts the colorful reality of Native culture on display.
Alejandra Rubio has always been intrigued by people’s lives. “Whatever culture, whatever rituals they do, what they believe in—it’s all fascinating to me. How they go about their morning routine, where they go during the day, their thought processes, what they do before bed. People’s different personalities intrigue me—their background, who their ancestors are, what their culture is, if they even know their own culture.”
That curiosity led her to become a visual artist working with photography and mixed media to explore wide-ranging subjects that run from her own Apache family and culture to the women of Moonlite Bunny Ranch, a legal, licensed brothel in Nevada (“why they were there, how they got there, what they are hoping for their future and their children”).
Apache Women Dancing. Apache Sunrise Dance. 2019. Camp Verde, NV
Rubio has also turned her camera on “the discarded life” of alcohol and drug abuse. “The majority of people have someone in their life who has a problem and they try to hide their secrets and discard them,” she laments. Inspired by photographer Nan Goldin, Rubio decided to show those lives—“people doing drugs, having sex, partying”— instead of hiding them, and created a body of work called The Unfiltered Life.
At a certain point, people began encouraging her to photograph her own culture. “At that time, I wasn’t interested because it would have labeled me as a Native American artist. I am an artist who happens to be Native American,” Rubio says. “Now it’s me realizing we are losing our culture, language, land, and people and we’re being pushed away and dying off.” With that realization came the motivation “to bring awareness to Native Americans who are overlooked in today’s society.” She made Indigenous culture the subject of her MFA thesis show, Here We Are, which features images of family, friends, and tribal members of the Yavapai-Apache Nation. The project combines images with written narratives and recordings with each participant explaining what difficulties they face and what they hope for Native American communities.
Sunrise Dance, Alejandra Rubio
We talked with Rubio about her work among the Yavapai-Apache Nation.
Cowboys & Indians: Where did you grow up, and how were you exposed to Indigenous culture?
Alejandra Rubio: I was born in Flagstaff and lived in Arizona when I was a child. We moved around a lot. I lived on the reservation with my grandmother when I was small in elementary school, moved away, and came back and spent middle school and high school there. In middle school I signed up for a youth works program on the reservation and was placed within the tribe’s administration. I got to choose what department I wanted to work with, and I chose the culture department because my grandmother Elizabeth Rocha was working there with her sister Rebecca Pavatea. I was exposed to the culture through my grandmother and spent a whole summer living with her and absorbing everything. Since middle school I’ve always done beading, Apache camp dress making, baby cradleboard making, moccasins. I still do those things and keep the traditions and skills alive with my daughter. My daughter made her own buckskin dress and moccasins for her Sunrise Dance. A medical emergency forced her ceremony to be cancelled, but she was able to do her one-day massage ceremony with family in Camp Verde.
Lillian Begay Painted. Apache Sunrise Dance. 2019. Camp Verde, AZ
C&I: We love your powwow photographs, but something we’ve never seen before is the Apache Sunrise Dance, which we’ve learned is an important spiritual coming-of-age ceremony in which a girl temporarily becomes Changing Woman, the first lady and mother of her people. Tell us more about that ceremony and how you came to photograph it.
Rubio: It’s a really significant thing for the girl, her family, and the whole community. A quinceañera is just one day. The Sunrise Dance is a week. But in reality it takes a whole year to really prepare for this ceremony. There’s everything from presenting the feather and stone to the godparents and medicine man to gathering all the materials for the ceremony. Then in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, the community comes out to help in building and preparing her camp and then slaughtering a cow and getting that prepared. You have to gather branches and leaves to make camp; you have to chop branches. She helps, along with the people who come to help. It’s like a committee. There’s a head camp person. Camp is made on the Sunrise Dance grounds down by the Verde River off the Middle Verde reservation. Family is invited—the whole community is invited. There are two camps. There’s the girl’s main camp, where her family comes and camps out for week with a kitchen, dining area, and a big visiting area. And then there’s a godparents’ camp, and they bring their family, too.
Elders In Sunlight. During Apache Sunrise Dance. 2019. Camp Verde, AZ
C&I: Tell us about the dance itself.
Rubio: The ceremony has music, blessings, and sharing of food. For the dance itself, the girl keeps the beat with the drum. She dances in place, moving her weight from one foot to the other. She does many, many dances, with hundreds of beats for every dance. Then she gets her massage by her godmother. She lies on her stomach and her godmother will massage her head, hair, face, back, and legs. This will help give her strength to go through life. On the last day of the ceremony, she gets painted with the white clay from White Mountain. She is painted from head to her feet by her crowndancers and godfather. This is to help keep her from getting old or getting any white hairs.
God Father Paints Goddaughter During Apache Sunrise Dance. 2019. Camp Verde, AZ
I didn’t get to go through one, but I got to photograph my niece’s. It’s very expensive. For the Sunrise Dance, the girl has to have a buckskin dress and many camp dresses. She can go out and buy one, but she often makes it herself or has it made for her. The dress can be beaded. It has all the buttons and jingles, both top and bottom, and moccasins that can be beaded with buttons and decorations. That’s another expense. I make moccasins. It costs me $300 or $350 to make a pair. To pay for the dance ritual, it can be anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000.
C&I: What’s the story behind the shot of the older women?
Rubio: That image of elderly women praying was taken during the Apache Sunrise Dance at Camp Verde in Arizona in May of 2019. It was during my niece’s ceremony. She was getting dressed by her godmother and friends, and family had gathered to take part. As I walked around, I saw these lovely ladies sitting in glowing light and took the photograph.
Men's Fancy Dancer. Numaga Indian Days Pow Wow 2019. Reno-Sparks Indian Colony - Hungry Valley community.
C&I: Your work can be provocative …
Rubio: In November, I had something in a show in Florida called Disruptive Flow, with a nonprofit that supports and promotes Indigenous artists called Voices of the Rivers of Grass. It [was] their second pop-up exhibition in celebration of Native American Heritage Month—a one-day exhibition held on the Miccosukee homeland. I sent a print on a metal sheet, painted it red, and called it Missing and Murdered Ancestors. You can see it on Instagram. I don’t like frames and glass. I don’t like my work boxed up and put behind glass. Glass and frames are a barrier and judgment. I break that photography tradition. I can print out very big, like 50 x 90, or very small, like wallet size. Once it’s printed, I like to manipulate it—tear it up, paint on it, put asphalt and tar on it. It might be tacked up, put on the floor and covered with dirt, or placed in a tree. I want my viewers to engage emotionally with my photos, to touch them, manipulate them. I want the viewers to feel the emotion coming out of the work.
Visit Alejandra Rubio online at alejandra-rubio.com. One of Rubio's pieces will be included in a show of works by Native American photographers from the late 19th century to the 21st century, October 21, 2023 - January 14, 2024, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis.