Dyani White Hawk (Sičáŋǧu Lakota) melds Indigenous patterns, materials, and symbolism with modernist archetypes in Speaking To Relatives at MCA Denver.
Dyani White Hawk: Speaking To Relatives
February 16–May 22, 2022
Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
Dyani White Hawk (Sičáŋǧu Lakota) is a cultural interpreter, bridging visual languages of her Indigenous and European heritages through radiant paintings that practically glow in the first-floor galleries of Museum of Contemporary Art Denver as part of her survey exhibition Speaking To Relatives. Deceptively tactile, her pieces occasionally include actual beadwork, literally weaving her Native ancestry into color fields reminiscent of hallowed post-war modernists.
In White Hawk’s practice, craft and formalism intersect, with the gendered connotations of each (slippery as they may be) revealing themselves as vibrations of the same theme, more relative than rival. These are confident, almost authoritative artworks—beautiful as they may be—and delicately rendered with painstaking attention to detail. Other, more loosely composed works such as Self Reflection (2012) and Transition (2011) are interspersed, balancing the show without breaking its rhythm.
In the exhibition’s supporting media, White Hawk describes how her paintings reflect Native and non-Native identities, narratives, and hierarchies. Her color palette recalls earthly pigments and plant fibers, along with other natural (and precious) resources like turquoise, copper, gold, and stone. According to White Hawk, “All of these things are materials that are our gifts from the land.”
Through her large-scale Quiet Strength paintings, White Hawk asserts her Lakota ancestors’ contributions to the origins—and evolution—of abstraction as an art form.
MCA senior curator Miranda Lash writes that White Hawk “uses paint to mimic motifs, materials, and qualities found in Plains-style porcupine quillwork and lane stitch beadwork, art forms historically upheld by Native women.”
In these paintings, the artist achieves trompe-l’œil realism through the precise repetition of cascading lines; what first appears to be an undulating mosaic eventually flattens into tiny bars of acrylic color. Arranged and applied meticulously by hand, each mark is perfectly imperfect, by way of human touch. The resulting compositions convey a sense of organic, pulsating movement—an optic sensation that seems to breathe life into an otherwise flat surface.
White Hawk, a recipient of a United States Artists Fellowship in Visual Art in 2019, is also an accomplished curator. That element of her practice underlines the works presented on the MCA’s lower level. The multi-media installation LISTEN features video interviews with Indigenous women, mostly elders, speaking their native endangered languages.
The audio of each video is only perceptible when standing in a fixed location, and intentionally so. There is no cacophony; instead, traversing the installation brings each voice—each language—into range, before fading away to make space for the next. A series of six two-sided photographs, suspended from the ceiling, hold the center of the room. Each image is a portrait of a young Native woman wearing traditional skirts and a protest t-shirt, their respective tribes emblazoned across each’s back, like family names on an athletic jersey.
Based in Minnesota, where her Lakota ancestors once lived, White Hawk’s work has been the subject of museum exhibitions across the American West, including the first iteration of this survey show at the Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis in 2021. Later this year, her work will be included in the Whitney Biennial 2022, a victory for any artist based in the pejoratively-termed “fly-over states.”
White Hawk’s work also offers an institutional critique and a reclaiming of abstraction from academia’s homogenous and myopic ivory tower. “The way that abstraction is taught in mainstream academia does not include the instruction of Indigenous people as a part of that history,” she states. “It talks about abstraction coming from the minds and hands of European and European-American men in the forties and fifties. But that’s only one part of the history of abstraction.”
This academic critique—embedded in the color fields that anchor White Hawk’s paintings—is obvious to those viewers who have studied art history writ large, but more obscure to the less initiated. And perhaps that’s a better lens through which to view the work—not as a response to the inequities that have long plagued the fine arts, but rather as stand-alone statements that mingle symbolic materials with earth-laden tones, reminiscent of the color palette of the Great Plains and the technicolor “American West.”
Color, form, and style should not be understood, academically or otherwise, as territories claimed and possessed by the minted few. The fact that certain painterly traditions are still ascribed to a certain type of modern artist seems, in our current day and age, like a counterproductive history, told by an unreliable narrator.
Instead of burdening these works by chaining them to a lineage that, at its worst, reduces almost all of art history to a linear timeline occupied by poorly-behaved white men, they should be viewed as White Hawk’s native visual language, one that her ancestors spoke long before being forced off their own lands.
In doing so, these works can be liberated from the baggage, emotional and otherwise, that’s inexorably linked to colonialist history. And yet, choosing to ignore said history is a luxury and a privilege in its own right, a convenient escape that the artist, through her work, is actively, righteously resisting—and challenging the viewer, through self-education, to resist as well.
Dyani White Hawk: Speaking To Relatives continues through May 22, 2022 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 1485 Delgany Street in Denver.