FARGO — When the coronavirus outbreak prompted the Plains Art Museum to close its doors in mid-March, it also clouded the opening of Dyani White Hawk’s anticipated show “She Gives,” which was only viewable online.
Patrons were finally able to see the show in person when the museum reopened earlier this month, and Andy Maus, director and CEO of the Fargo museum, feels the experience is worth the wait.
Maus points out that White Hawk is a fast-rising star in the art world, being named one of the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s artists of 2019, in part for her role in the nationally lauded group show, “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Being able to see the show now seems even more timely as the country is being forced to address its racist past and present after the killing of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers.
White Hawk’s work focuses on Native American women, but does so with an eye on the impact of colonization, racism and sexism.
“Her work is a reflection of where we are artistically, historically and culturally,” Maus says. “She mixes personal and social history as she explores how women of color have been omitted from history books.”
White Hawk says the show isn't just about or for women of color.
"As a Native women, I start from center and speak to the issues closest to home, yet the works are meant to start from this space and ripple out to call out and recognize the systematic oppression of all marginalized voices in our national and global history and present that are not European or European American men, and the ways this is reflected in the arts," she says.
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“Dyani is talking about a community conversation that’s been going on for decades,” says Joe Williams, director of Native American programs at the Plains. “The timing of what’s going on in the world has allowed us to listen to what she and women of our culture have been saying.”
Williams and White Hawk recorded their conversation about her work for a podcast that is viewable on the museum's website, plainsart.org.
'I Am Your Relative'
In direct and indirect ways, White Hawk, who is Lakota, shows and tells experiences of contemporary Native American women, none more powerfully than “I Am Your Relative.”
The work is composed of six life-size portraits of Native women, all wearing traditional ribbon skirts and black T-shirts. The first, White Hawk’s daughter, sports a shirt that says, “I AM,” the next shirt reads, “MORE THAN YOUR DESIRE,” then, “MORE THAN YOUR FANTASY,” “MORE THAN A MASCOT,” “ANCESTRAL LOVE PRAYER SACRIFICE,” and finally, “YOUR RELATIVE.” On the back of each shirt, the wearer’s tribal affiliations are listed.
“It’s a forceful presence. There’s a human directness,” Maus says.
“The photos speak to the power women in Native American culture have,” says Williams, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota.
In a placard next to the piece, the artist writes: "Traditionally, women were highly respected and fundamentally understood to be leaders, decision makers and life givers of the people. Native women in today’s America are not seen as human. We are often not seen at all. Our profound invisibility gives way to gross stereotypes and distorted sexualized caricatures that dehumanize and commodify us."
She adds that Native women can face a murder rate of up to 10 times the national average, and 84 percent of Native women experience violence in their lives.
Williams says “I Am Your Relative” pairs well with a suite of four prints, “Takes Care of Them,” where White Hawk recalls traditional Plains dentalium dresses, each differently colored and decorated. The works represent many different ways Native women care for their communities. The four dresses evoke the practice of asking four veterans to stand in each direction for protection during a certain ceremony. White Hawk’s mother is a veteran.
Each print is named after a different attribute she associates with Native women — “Create,” “Nurture,” “Protect” and “Lead” — and contains some symbolism in each design. For example, the green dress, “Protect,” features a border of dragon flies at the bottom hem. Among some Plains tribes, dragonflies can be seen as symbols of protection.
She returns to the feeling of invisibility of Native women in the series “Carry,” which uses traditionally made items like a bag or a vessel and ladle to make a point about how museums categorize art by artists that are not white men.
“The works of women and people of color have generally been separated from the works of art that have no prefix,” she writes. “The work of European and European-American men has long held the privilege of simply being labeled as Art, while more often than not, separate spaces have been created for ‘African Art’, ‘Arts of the Oceanic’, ‘Craft’, ‘Decorative Art’, ‘Native American Art’, etc.”
She points out that functional works, like the decorated bag, are more often labeled craft or folk art, not fine art or high art.
“These works have generally been regarded as craft,” she writes. “In regards to Native arts, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is great intention, thought, knowledge, worldviews, cosmologies and more embedded in the functional works of our ancestors and relatives today. These pieces serve many functions simultaneously.”
That difference in how art institutions — museums, galleries, publications and even art schools — can view anything outside of European and European American art as “other” was driven home in the first week of basic art history classes as an undergraduate. While going over the syllabus in class, she asked if they would be studying anything like pre-Columbian art. The teacher said yes, but later and in a different class.
“I remember wanting to throw my hands up,” she says. “That one experience is so transparent about how the system is structured.”
Maus welcomes the criticism, and he and other Plains staffers have openly acknowledged the Plains’ and other museums’ shortcomings in displaying and collecting female artists and artists of color.
“We deserve to be in this moment of self-criticism,” Maus says. “We’ll see how we change, adapt and grow. We need to grow. I think that’s where Dyani is calling us out. Women are vastly underrepresented in museum collections. She very much addresses that many museums have not collected and exhibited Native women artists.”