The mixed-media and mixed-heritage artist embraces the dilemmas and blessings of a cross-cultural life.
“I’m working against a very fast-approaching deadline, so it’s best if I can talk and work,”says award-winning painter and mixed-media artist Dyani White Hawk, a brush in her hand and the phone on speaker. Gearing up for an exhibition at Shiprock Santa Fe, she doesn’t stop painting while she talks about coming into her own both as an artist and as a mixed-heritage Lakota woman.
Whether she’s intricately painting hundreds of minuscule beads on oversize canvases or painstakingly incorporating actual beads and porcupine quills in mixed-media pieces, White Hawk’s exacting detail and dynamic contemporary spin on age-old indigenous elements — blanket patterns, moccasins, the four directions — are hallmarks of her work. Unique in their abstraction and striking in their color, the pieces can often be read variously as landscape or object, pattern or figure. Visually, they stand out from the crowd; mentally, they plumb familiar depths in a highly personal way.
“My work embraces the dilemmas and contradictions as well as the joys and blessings of a cross-cultural existence,” White Hawk says in an artist statement that suggests as much about her keen intellect as it does about her artwork. “As a woman of Lakota and European ancestry, my life experiences have been a combination of both Western and indigenous educations, causing a continual negotiation of value systems and worldviews. Through the amalgamation of abstract symbols and motifs derivative of both Lakota and Western abstraction, my artwork examines, dissects, and patches back together pieces of each in a means to provide an honest representation of self and culture.”
White Hawk’s mother was born on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota but adopted by a non-Native family and relocated to Wisconsin. Born and raised in Wisconsin, White Hawk didn’t meet her family in Rosebud or learn much about her Lakota identity till she was a young teen. Although she says “I’ve been an artist since I was born,” it wasn’t until she began wrestling with identity issues that her art took compelling shape. White Hawk’s very first painting was for her admission portfolio to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. The prescient piece tackled the subject that would come to dominate her artistic quest: a woman standing in a dark nighttime landscape scene and sectioned down the middle, with traditional regalia on one side and street clothes on the other. Once at IAIA, White Hawk began painting in earnest, earning a BFA. She went on to earn her MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She sold her first painting in 2005 and in 2011 won the Best of Classification award at the Santa Fe Indian Art Market and first place in painting at the Northern Plains Indian Art Market.
Painting out of her studio in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District, White Hawk pauses to consider her artistic journey thus far: “It took me years to reconcile all the issues I was grappling with, and as a result my early works were just packed with information,” she says. “I worked really, really hard to find ways to pare all those ideas down to a graceful composition that was effective and strong. I had to figure out a way to talk about those things through abstraction and achieve a composition that was graceful, clear, poignant, and beautiful. To be most at peace with myself — because it’s hard to live, especially as a young person, and be OK with embodying both sides of the battle — my work [continues to be] about processing those things and striving for balance and self-acceptance.”