Dyani White Hawk: Nurturing the Spirit

Installation view of “Dyani White Hawk: Speaking to Relatives,” an exhibit of paintings, sculpture, beadwork, photography and video by the Sičáŋǧu Lakota artist at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
(photo by E.G. Schempf)

The Sičáŋǧu Lakota Artist Pays Tribute to Her Ancestors and Honors Native Women in a Powerful Exhibit at Kemper Museum

Like a juggler twirling multiple plates, Dyani White Hawk, in her exhibition “Speaking to Relatives,” seamlessly melds different cultures, languages and aesthetic traditions into one immersive event. Her exhibit, which includes paintings, sculpture, beadwork, photography and video, is a powerful and unforgettable experience, which curator Jade Powers has installed to perfection. For those who linger and look, White Hawk’s art fills up the heart, mind and body; it may also stir up unknown, unbidden ancestral longings.

White Hawk is a Sičáŋǧu Lakota artist born in 1976. She is also a curator, lecturer and jewelry designer. Her work has been featured in Kansas City in group exhibits at The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art and the Sherry Leedy Gallery, but seeing the diversity of her art in one space is a different experience. As generous and beautiful as the show is — it’s a well-deserved tribute to the artistry of her predecessors, mostly anonymous — White Hawk also brings us face to face with centuries of her culture’s wrenching legacy of female abuse. As written in one exhibit label: “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 . . . Indigenous women face a murder rate 10 times higher than the national average, with 84 percent experiencing some form of violence in their lifetimes.”

White Hawk deals with these issues in various ways. “Speaking to Relatives” is divided into four main parts — abstract paintings of vamps (the upper toe of a moccasin), many of which incorporate beadwork; symbolic beaded and fringed sculptures that reference Lakota carrying vessels; six life-sized color photographs, front and back, of Native women; and eight video installations of Indigenous women speaking their native languages on their ancestral lands.

There are 10 large-scale paintings of vamps; they range from realistic to abstract, and many of them include stunning beadwork. In earlier pieces, such as “Connections,” from 2015, glass beads make up the details. In later works, including “Untitled (All The Colors)” and “Untitled (black and gold),” from 2020, the vamp is a totally abstract shape assembled from thousands of bugle beads in dazzling, gridlike patterns that take White Hawk as long as months to complete.

The scale, vibrant color and graphic quality of these works have the impact of Pop art, but their purpose is totally different. Pop art is ironic and cool; White Hawk’s larger-than-life images are created to show respect for the power and heritage of what to many may seem a lowly shoe, but in Plains culture is an item of artistry and living connection to the land itself.

“It was an intentional move on my part to create art at that scale,” White Hawk said in a recent interview. “I really wanted to create a powerful presence to honor my ancestors in a way they haven’t been honored before (within the arts).” As Powers notes in the catalog essay, “White Hawk views the moccasin as a representation of a figure without human characteristics.”

The all-beaded vamps also honor the language of abstraction that is the basis of so much Plains art. For centuries, abstraction has been the baseline for many Indigenous artistic traditions around the globe, and typically, as in Native art, it acts as a complex visual language communicating identity and belief systems. It has also served as visual inspiration for countless modern artists in the West, including Adolph Gottlieb, Will Barnett and Jackson Pollock.

“I learned beading as a teenager from my mom’s friends,” White Hawk says.“They were regalia makers.” Beaders from all countries would admire White Hawk’s work. She typically utilizes a lane stitch (where multiple beads are grouped together in rows and lanes) composed mostly from vintage trade beads, with newer glass beads added for special effects. She also does quillwork, an even more exacting craft, and while there is no traditional quillwork in this exhibit, she deliberately mimics the look of quills and lane stitching in her “Quiet Strength” series of paintings, which are composed of thousands of rows of strokes next to more strokes, to hallucinogenic effect. The gold, silver and copper undertones of these works all have symbolic meaning to White Hawk, as well as being organic materials related to the earth. They also reference Minimalist painting at its best.

Installation view of “Dyani White Hawk: Speaking to Relatives,” an exhibit of paintings, sculpture, beadwork, photography and video by the Sičáŋǧu Lakota artist at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (photo by E.G. Schempf)
Installation view of “Dyani White Hawk: Speaking to Relatives.” (photo by E.G. Schempf)

Melding Vocabularies

White Hawk, who lives in Minnesota, spent three years at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, where she received an AA degree. She then got her BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts, and an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Well-versed in Western art movements, she includes aspects of Conceptual art, Color Field painting and Minimalism as additional inspirations for her work, purposely interweaving these genres with the artistic traditions of centuries-old Plains stylistic artistry to signify that the art of both cultures is equally valuable.

“There are layers and depths of color and light in Color Field painting,” White Hawk says, “but when you stand in front of a (Lakota) woman’s dress you get the same variations of light from the beads.”

In the “Carry” series, one must look up eight feet or more to see ladled buckets, covered with more dazzling beadwork, and oversized buckskin fringe cascading down to coils on the floor. In these works, Powers writes, “White Hawk questions the idea of ‘functional art,’ an attribute often assigned to Native work, that has historically segregated it from ‘fine art.’ In creating . . . vessels too large to be functional in cultural practices, viewers of this work must acknowledge and respect the pieces, often by walking around them and being conscious of the space each of these works occupies in the gallery.”

One of the aims of “Speaking to Relatives” is to make Native women more visible in the world, and White Hawk does this literally in the “I am Your Relative” section. Six native women are photographed full scale, beautifully and in color, front and back, wearing ribbon skirts adorned in the aesthetics of their respective tribes and t-shirts that collectively read: I AM – MORE THAN YOUR DESIRE – MORE THAN YOUR FANTASY – MORE THAN A MASCOT – ANCESTRAL LOVE PRAYER SACRIFICE – Y0UR RELATIVE. The reverse sides identify each woman by their tribe.

The video installations in “LISTEN” allow one not only to see, but hear, Native women from various reservations and pueblos across the country, each speaking in her Native dialect. While listening to each woman speak, the background sound from the others talking fills the room in a beautiful chorus. It is something of a religious experience. White Hawk worked with cinematographer Razelle Benally (Oglala Lakota/Diné), to produce “LISTEN,” and besides the voices, the animistic sensations rising from the scenes of the differing landscapes are captivating.

“Lakota” generally translates to “ally or friend.” She clearly wants the audience to connect with her ancestors and relatives, but also “to recognize and practice our relatedness across life.” She equally wants to reach out to her viewers. “I want people to have not just a cognitive response to my work, but a physical response to what they see as well. I feel it is important to consider – what does my art offer the audience? Does it fill you up or nurture your spirit? I also strive to create opportunities for conversations that will encourage people to think critically about what we will choose to carry in the future and how we will live in relationship with one another.”

“Dyani White Hawk: Speaking to Relatives” continues at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Boulevard, through June 16. Admission is by free timed-entry tickets. For tickets and more information, 816.753.5784 or www.kemperart.org.

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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