Interview With Artist Dyani White Hawk

Last week I interviewed Minnesota-based artist Dyani White Hawk about her background, her practice and her enigmatic painting Dream (2012), which is hanging in our New American Paintings: Midwest Edition exhibition.

Dyani White Hawk, Dream, 2012, acrylic and oil on canvas, 30"x25.5" (Installation shot)

Peter Guardalabene: Dream seems to get stranger the longer I look into it; like a dream, it makes perfect sense while it’s happening, but recounting the sequence is much more difficult. Once I think I have a grasp on the imagery, it eludes me or morphs into something else. Would you say Dream is representational, or abstract, or maybe a little bit of both?

Dyani White Hawk: It is definitely a little of both and intentionally so.  The shape of the moccasin top or “vamp” is abstracted, taken out of context and used as a kind of stand in figure.  It becomes the main character, possessing agency and character.  At the same time, it can also operate as a point of entrance becoming almost structural.  The patterning on the moccasin top is painted in a representational manner.  It references both Lakota beadwork and porcupine quillwork, influenced by traditional designs and motifs.  My works are very much meant to live in the realm of abstraction, intentionally leaving room for personal interpretations, relationships with, and conceptual entry points into the work.  At the same time I often use representational means of rendering to create shallow layers so that the viewer can “enter” the painting allowing the eyes to move through the different layers and planes.  I am rarely looking to represent infinite space, but allowing just enough plane differentiation to move around inside the painting.

PG: The toe of the moccasin, or what I believe to be the toe of a moccasin, is a recurring motif in many of your paintings. Like the tension between representation and abstraction, it seems both culturally significant and deeply subjective. The pattern says culture and tradition, as does the moccasin, but the toe separated from the rest of the shoe is all we see, and all you have decided to show. Clearly I’m a little obsessed with the representation of this small, often overlooked section of foot that’s having attention called to it by its pattern. Why just the toe?

DWH: The use of this form came about during graduate school.  Much of my time during these years was devoted to finding ways to negotiate and inclusively depict the variety of my academic and personal influences upon my personal aesthetic.

As a woman of both Lakota (Rosebud Sioux) and European descent, my upbringing has been a strong mixture of mainstream urban American and Native American cultural life experiences.  My undergraduate years were spent at tribal colleges focused on teaching and learning from an indigenous perspective, my primary education and graduate school years were in mainstream public schools.  What this has meant to my personal life and thus naturally extends into my artwork essentially boils down to a lifelong pursuit of seeking balance and ways to fully embrace all aspects of my being and life experiences.

During my undergraduate years my paintings were very busy, heavily populated with symbolism and referential information as I was attempting to tell this extremely complex personal and national story in each work. During grad school I began seeking ways to continue similar conversations within the work, but really striving to find grace and poignancy within my compositions.

The moccasin top became one of these solutions.  I was looking for ways to speak to multiple audiences.  To those not familiar with the moccasin reference, this form can operate as simply an abstract shape and they can enter the painting through the history of modern abstraction, finding referential lineage to western art history.  To those familiar with the shape, and depending on the specificity or lack of specificity used in design references, it can allude to a larger body of Native peoples or very specifically reference a particular tribe or region.

In either scenario, the shape becomes a stand-in figure.  The figure has agency, personality, can carry emotion or feeling yet is without age, gender or specific human character unless I choose to allude to these things through the designs chosen and the cultural references these designs carry.  I really enjoy the flexibility the shape provides, the ability to be general or particular, to allude to human qualities without the body, to be both related to the history of modern abstract painting and traditional and contemporary Native arts while carrying cultural knowledge and world views in the form of modern abstract painting.

PG: Intersectionality between and among many facets seem to be important to your work, including those crossing identities, representations, traditions, histories. You said in your statement for New American Paintings that you’re interested in cross-cultural intersections, and I’m interested in what way. Is it mainly in connection between cultures, which I associate with the history and conditions of American colonialism, or maybe more tied to symbolism and style of respective-yet-intertwined cultures as subjectively interpreted?

DWH: Yes, all of those things.  I work from center out.  Meaning, I utilize my personal life experiences to explore the larger story.  By starting from center I am able to utilize my history to spiral outwards exploring the ways in which my life experiences, knowledge base, and education is reflective of US history, tribal history, Federal/Tribal relations and how these intersections have historically and continually play out in our artistic production.  My works often depict my efforts to reconcile and balance often-conflicting value systems between mainstream American and Native world-views and experiences.  They are meant to invoke dialogue that provides opportunity to discuss the history and conditions of American colonialism and the general lack of knowledge of Native history and contemporary Native communities. This extends into the ways these intersections have played out in the trajectory of our Nation’s art and how this story has been told (or not told) and is represented (or not) in mainstream academia and art institutions today.

PG: Lakota culture, history and imagery is very important to you in the realization of your work. In the merge between Lakota symbolism and mediums and modern Western styles and ideology, I’m curious where, or whether lines delineating either can be drawn. The only modern Western, and very Chicago artist I thought of in relation to your work was Roger Brown, mostly for formal stylization of the background and tonal gradients. I guess I’m asking how the viewer should locate the Lakota and the Modern in your work and the significance of the blending?

DWH: I am a fan of Roger Brown and the Imagists, so I appreciate the reference and agree with the similarity in execution.  I have also referenced the lineage of stripe and color field painters such as Mark Rothko and Sean Scully specifically because of strong influence in the work drawn from Native arts, and recognition of the connection between spirituality and art, respectively.  I have drawn a great deal of influence from modern abstract painters who drew a great deal of influence from Native artists such as Marsden Hartley and Adolph Gottlieb. The use of the moccasin top also can be partly attributed to Philip Guston’s hooded figures and the ways in which he used a singular form to depict an array of characters, emotions and abstracted political story lines.  Artists such as Agnes Martin for composition and emotive qualities, and Peter Saul for storytelling and calling out national absurdities and atrocities have also had strong influence on my work.

In regards to Lakota influences it comes from many places.  I have done a great deal of research in historic collections of Lakota beadwork, quillwork and other tribal art forms including Navajo weaving.  Because of the nature of our national history, the views of what is art and what is ethnographic material, what is art or craft, and historic perceptions of the value of an individual and/or culture, many of these artists or makers are not documented. But much of the symbolism remains utilized in tribal art forms today.  Within these symbols and even the reference to particular artistic mediums and natural materials Lakota world-views, knowledge and teachings are embedded.  These concepts are important in my work.  I have also drawn a great deal of influence from contemporary Native artists, both of traditional art forms and modern.  Painters such as Fritz Scholder and T.C. Cannon both have had tremendous impact on my work.  The abstraction of George Morrison and Helen Hardin both example ways Native artists have found a voice within the art world that speaks both to their connection with modern painting and their tribal identities and experiences.

The significance of the blending is in an effort to create works that are as honest and inclusive as possible.  I am not either or.  I am Lakota, German and Welsh.  I grew up in the city, predominantly among urban Native communities. I attended tribal and mainstream schools. I grew up snowboarding, skateboarding and listening to hip hop, techno, Nirvana, Jimmi Hendrix, Led Zepplin…  Yet, I also grew up learning the importance of my culture and have been raised with a Lakota value system and teachings, attending ceremony and pow wows, listening to drum groups and singers like Smoky Town, Eyabay, Northern Cree and Ulali…  I cannot make paintings that are seen as solely “Indian” artwork. I also cannot abandon all references to my identity and lived experiences as a Lakota woman.  If I were to attempt to do so, neither would not be entirely true.

In regards to drawing a line…I hope it is not entirely possible.  The idea is that these histories, our lives today and therefore our arts are completely intertwined.  Neither American art nor Native arts would look the way they do today without the influence of one another in means of aesthetics, materials and relationships with one another (the good and the bad) and our relationships with a shared land base.

Resilient Beauty, 2014, oil on canvas, 48" x 48"

PG: The 113th edition of New American Paintings being geographically tied to the Midwest seems to have significance only in that its artists live in the middle of the United States. I’ve been interested in some kind of local determinism or communal zeitgeist that may uniquely inform Midwestern artists, but stylization and conceptualization seem pervasively to be individually informed. Yours is one of the few works that derives its foundational concepts from identity, one of which is specific to a place. Do you think there are or could be geographically linked genre, or is a “Midwestern painter” indicative only of an address?

DWH: Yes I think its possible, but it depends entirely on the artist, and of course as you have seen is not possible as a sweeping generalization.  I think it can happen a number of ways.  For myself, and all self-identifying indigenous artists, our identity is place specific.  I am a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, which is in South Dakota.  Our people originate from the Black Hills so my relationship with the Midwest is very specific and significant.  I currently live in Minnesota and grew up in Wisconsin.  Our tribe also has historic ties to Minnesota and my father’s family (German and Welsh) settled in Wisconsin.  All of this is related to Midwest and US history.  Because of my relationship with this knowledge, it is reflected in my work.

Because of the nature of how our country was established and the early efforts to create an American identity, not everyone has a relationship with the knowledge of their family heritage and culture.  But, we do all have relationships with the place that we were raised and/or currently live.  There are many artists that respond to these things in their work.  Some are landscape painters responding to the land base.  Some speak to current issues that impact their immediate communities.  Even through making work about the people from a particular area, you are documenting the historic lineage and current environment of a particular geographic region.   So, I do believe you can pull out artists that would readily depict a “Midwest painter”, but it is complex.  Moreover, we have become so globally connected and intertwined that it is difficult to separate national regions and at times even nation from world and overarching human experiences.