It’s been several months since I sat down with Melanie Yazzie to talk about her lively, whimsical paintings that have layers of meaning hidden in them. Yazzie is also a printmaker, sculptor and ceramicist. I had been meaning to write an article about her for Winds, and concentrate on her painting, but the article was put on the back burner while I was dealing with health issues. Now, I feel like I can piece together an article, but thought I’d hone and share it on my blog first.
Melanie Yazzie, who is Diné of the Salt and Bitter Water Clans, is just one of many (see Bunky Echo-Hawk’s work) Native artists who are pushing the boundaries of what people think Native art should look like. There’s a certain stereotype that many Caucasian people look for when they decide to purchase Indian art. It seems they want regalia.
Yazzie, who has traveled all over the world and collaborated with artists from Siberia, Japan, New Zealand, and dozens of other countries, is amused by the regalia thing. She says simply, “We [Native Americans] are not stagnant, and our art isn’t either. The traditional and contemporary are equally valuable. An Indian person does not have to be dressed in regalia to be Indian, nor does their artwork need to [display] regalia.”
Yazzie, who is an associate professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, has had an interesting upbringing. She grew up on the Navajo Reservation, but she attended a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania. She comes from a family of teachers: her father was a school superintendent, her mother still teaches, her sister teaches at the University of Indiana-Bloomington, and her brother teaches on the Navajo reservation.
Her parents took their children on summer trips all over the country to expose them to different cultures and people. Yet, as with all Diné people, Yazzie’s sense of place is intact. “The Diné are a matrilineal culture so we always know where we come from. When I travel overseas, I remember where I’m coming from.” This steady, feminine assurance is reflected in her paintings which emphasize women as leaders, women as source of strength. The colors, though often pastel, are emboldened by the shapes that they inhibit. The shapes vary; some are distinctly female forms, others are of animals, some skeletal stick figures that resemble pictographs, (though Yazzie says they are most definitely not) and there are a few that because of the title are easily defined. The piece entitled “Fishing With Them,” depicts a long purple fish, its bones exposed, and from where the fish tail should be, a human figure emerges. Evolution? Yazzie does not expand on scientific theories though. She says instead, “I was influenced by strong women like Rigoberta Menchu and Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith who was the first Native person to purchase one of my paintings.”
She explains her paintings this way: “There’s always a story that goes with a piece of art that is usually profound. If you don’t understand it, educate yourself about it. The journey to understanding opens up other ways to look at things. For example, I was hit by a drunk driver and my backbone was thrown out of alignment. I was in great pain. The painting “Somehow I am Walking” reflects that time. In my paintings I insert positive life symbols. I create symbols of little spirits with a bright sense of happiness and strength. Fish play a huge role in many cultures. When I travel to other nations and we are eating fish, this represents sharing, inner strength and connectedness.” This sounds like a medicine to me.
Yazzie is equally adamant and articulate about those in power who would cut school art programs. “Art in any culture tells the story of that culture. Art is the mark of how advanced a culture is. Artists have always spoken about the currents in that society. If teaching the arts is cut off, there is something seriously wrong going on.”
Yazzie has tough questions for young people about to start their journey in studying art. These questions have to do with knowing who are as a person before you begin the creative process. Yazzie asks her students, “What are you doing in your communities? Are you reinforcing stereotypes? Are you helping others? Are you helping women and children? These are Native American cultural values. Are you educating others?”
Yazzie’s work is deceptively simple and yet it teaches the viewer to look beyond the surface and dig deeper. This is something many people, even in 2010, seem to be too lazy or are simply unwilling to do. This is a tragedy and I believe there most definitely is something “seriously wrong going on.”