Artist Statement : Melanie Yazzie
My work is culturally based in my heritage of being a Dine (Navajo) person. The works stem from the thought and belief that what we create must have beauty and harmony from within ourselves, from above, below, in front, behind and from our core. We are taught to seek out beauty and create it with our thoughts and prayers. I feel that when I am making my work, be it a print, a painting or a sculpture, I begin by centering myself and thinking it all out in a “good way”, which is how I was taught from an early age.
The work then takes on a life of its own and is centered around my personal experience or a life event. It seeks to tell a story about something real or something imagined, or a dream but it is a tool to get at a bigger story I have to tell.
It is a story about restoring memory while trying to survive in a society that is broken and riddled with problems stemming from the invasion of a different dominant culture that is filled with sadness and heartbreak. As a people, we were forced to assimilate by a governmental act that sent children away to boarding schools, away from family and culture. The effects have been devastating and crippling to our communities. It also has added a new direction for many of us that is also leading to good. Add to all of this the regular challenges of growing up in today’s changing society and you see great problems layered beyond any regular solution. Our community is dealing with alcoholism, identity crisis and all the issues that stem from these illnesses and add to it all, an educational system that is foreign to our community. Again, this aspect is beginning to make shifts and there is a change and a strength beginning to happen from within some of our communities.
I saw how when I made work that focused on the positive times and the idea of a wonderful life, the Dine people and others began to listen. They saw the work as unthreatening and when people began to come to the artist talks and lectures I gave, I was able to share the darker side of our history, the not-so-happy memories and events. My art began to also be in the story telling, the lectures and talks. It was a time when the learning and teaching could take place. Those people who came were excited afterwards. They see what the works represent and become part of my project to educate people about whom I am and where I come from. They began to share what they learned at the lecture and then invitations began to come from other locations. I then go to these places to have exhibitions, an art workshop and begin the work of communicating and educating.
At the lectures I tell my story about where I have traveled to in my life. I talk how I have connected with indigenous people in many places. How our histories are the same and in connecting we become empowered. As indigenous people we are reconnecting today. The work I make is about family. Much focus is on my relations to my grandmothers who were both traditional Dine weavers. The works are also about my personal issue with my health and how I am dealing with my struggle with being a type 2 diabetic. The work also addresses the animals in my life that have given me the love and strength to get through the dark hours of doing the research into the dark side of my people’s history. The stories are layered and often have images or symbols in them that are signifiers to people from home. They see the works and see a part of themselves. Others are “let in” at a lecture on my work. So this is how the lecture component of my work is so important.
The workshop aspect of my process is another teaching moment. They are times for students to learn my techniques in printmaking, ceramics and painting. I show them how I work and why I make the work I make. They learn about how the process is ritual for me. I follow the Dine saying of: I am creating a space that is filled with good, a space that recreates my world of wonder, I am creating myself to be whole and full again, I am creating a positive place that will bring good.
They learn about my process and how I am drawing from memory, from dreaming and from the stories from within. They are re-charged with a creative impetus that refuels their creative spirit. This is when the magic happens and the teachers, students and community say we need to tell others about you and your visit. They say, “This needs to happen.”
I do all of this to educate and to connect with communities. I am a bridge between my community and the outside world. I can only tell my truth and I always say that I am one voice from my community and I can only represent myself, my experience. I cannot speak for all indigenous people. I ask them to make the effort and take time to know their communities and the people in them. At times they fail to realize that they are the indigenous people of their place.