What was stolen is taken back

Dyani White Hawk’s recent abstractions confront the appropriation of native aesthetics

"Stealing Horses Back" by Dyani White Hawk. Submitted image

KENWOOD — It’s not always as blatant as a Victoria’s Secret model walking the runway in lingerie and a headdress — as Karlie Kloss did, in 2012 — but the fashion industry has for decades plundered American Indian clothing and design for profit, from the geometric patterns of Navajo blankets to the decorative beadwork adorning Plains Indian regalia.

“If our country’s history wasn’t the way it was, it probably wouldn’t be a big deal,” said the artist Dyani White Hawk, who is Sicangu Lakota and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. White Hawk’s latest paintings, which translate traditional bead- and quillwork designs into paint — or even layer beadwork on top of painted canvas — confront the appropriation of American Indian aesthetics in both fashion and art.

“When it’s one of the last things that feels like ours, then it’s the last slap in the face,” she said. “It’s like, How much do you want? How much more do you need that’s ours?”

And so White Hawk takes back. In several of her paintings on display at Bockley Gallery in Kenwood, beadwork stitched in multi-colored lanes drapes over a painted abstract geometric pattern like a curtain. The beadwork is a tweak on tradition — with bigger, chunkier beads than White Hawk, a dancer who makes her own regalia, would ever use for clothing — and the painted pattern is lifted from a pair of running pants with a pseudo-native design.

“I thought, if I just take that pattern and I steal it back and bring it into my space of value and worth, it’s like biting back,” she said.

The pants pattern, so removed from its original context, is basically visual gobbledygook. Or it was until White Hawk reinserted elements of traditional design into its busy geometry, including the symbols for horse tracks.

“People who are hip to Lakota designs and the meanings behind them will see those, no problem,” she said.

One large, square canvas at Bockley is meticulously covered in thousands of equal-sized, roughly inch-long vertical brushstrokes in various shades of ivory against a background of gold. There is the illusion of iridescence.

“Painting like that, it very much mimics the process of doing beadwork and quillwork in its methodology and rhythm, and it’s kind of meditative,” White Hawk said.

She started painting this way in graduate school — when she realized “quillwork doesn’t fit the grad school schedule” — translating a native craft tradition into the language of modern art spoken in museums and galleries. In those places, it is still often not easy to trace the roots of modern art back through its earliest — often white, often male — practitioners to a wellspring of its visual innovations: the indigenous aesthetic traditions of Africa, Asia and the Americas, whose own geniuses typically went unnamed and unrecorded.

“You cannot separate the histories. It’s impossible,” White Hawk said. “We’ve both benefitted off of looking at each other’s creative output.”

By bringing her heritage with her into the gallery, White Hawk makes that fact harder to ignore.

"Čhokáta Nažiŋ Wíŋyaŋ" by Dyani White Hawk.
“Čhokáta Nažiŋ Wíŋyaŋ” by Dyani White Hawk.

Storied Abstraction

When: Through Oct. 22

Where: Bockley Gallery, 2123 W. 21st St.

Info: 377-4669, bockleygallery.com