Seeing Red

Lakota artist Francis Yellow turns historical injuries into polemical offensives

In Francis Yellow's bronze sculpture "All of You Out of the Way," an Indian warrior wearing a full war bonnet sits atop a massive buffalo and rides down a flailing white man who is on foot. The forms in this piece are simple, and only the most relevant details have been included--warrior, buffalo, struggling white man--as if to focus all our attention on their symbolic power. In 1994 Yellow, who lives and works in Minneapolis, entered this piece in the Northern Plains Tribal Arts Exhibition in South Dakota and was awarded Best of Show. As part of this honor, a photo of Yellow's sculpture was placed on print material for the show and circulated around the state to promote the exhibition. According to Yellow, this set off a round of protests by a number of white South Dakotans, including the state's governor William Janklow, who called the director of the Tribal Arts Exhibition to complain about the "provocative" nature of the work.

Yellow, who only learned of this dispute after the fact, seems slightly nonplussed that someone would take exception to his art. The concept in that piece, Yellow says, originates in a Lakota art tradition that ritualizes the conflict between a warrior and an enemy. That Yellow's statement was directed toward a broader white society and not a particular viewer, though, hardly dilutes the polemical potency of the image.

This kind of ambivalent experience with some white audiences--a fine dance between the artist's seemingly confrontational intent and the viewer's frequent misapprehension--hasn't stunted Yellow's career. Though far from rich, Yellow, who is 44 years old, has built a national reputation while selling his work to museums, private collectors, and universities. So far this year, his paintings and drawings have been included in two important exhibitions in Minneapolis: Absence/Presence, a show about genocide mounted in January by the Katherine Nash Gallery and the University of Minnesota's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies; and Chasing the Spirit, a series currently up at Intermedia Arts, which examines the multiethnicity of people who are both African American and Native American.

A complicated self-image: Francis Yellow poses in front of his self-portrait "This Is Me" (1998)
Daniel Corrigan
A complicated self-image: Francis Yellow poses in front of his self-portrait "This Is Me" (1998)

On the whole, Yellow's paintings and drawings are filled with colorful, expressive figures and motifs that rely on his cultural background for meaning. He depicts rainbow-colored horses and warrior figures drawn in a simple, stylized manner alongside careful renderings of the broken-down cars from the reservation where he grew up. Yellow often borrows from the forms of historical Lakota artists, such as Amos Bad Heart Bull and the artists of a school called Ledger Art. At other times, he draws from the harsh realism and often heavy-handed political satire of such postwar German expressionists as Otto Dix and George Grosz. Often, he does both in the same painting. And given this, should it be any surprise that Yellow sometimes finds that he has communicated one message to his Indian viewers and, apparently, quite a different one to the white audience?


Francis Yellow was born in Pierre, South Dakota, and he grew up on the Cheyenne River reservation, a stretch of rolling prairies established, in 1889, as a home for the Lakota bands of the Mnikoju, Itazipco, Siha Sapa, and Oo'henumpa. Yellow spent a good portion of his formative years in Catholic boarding school on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation, 80 miles away from his parents. At age 15, in 1970, after ten years of schooling that he describes as disagreeable and abusive, he ran away, as his brother once had, and hitchhiked to California to find an uncle there.

"A lot of people were hitchhiking in those days," he says of his choice to leave the Plains. "And I knew I couldn't go back to the reservation or I'd be sent back to the school."

Yellow, who is tall and has a weathered face, describes this history from his small Minneapolis duplex off Minnehaha Avenue, pausing sometimes, as jet traffic thunders overhead. The apartment is filled with bookshelves, and his tiny kitchen is crowded with appliances; a new blueberry-colored iMac takes up the dining nook. His small studio space consists of an easel tucked in among the furniture in his living room.

That Yellow's painful early experiences affected him deeply is manifest in both his current life and his art. His treatment in boarding school made him vow never again to enter a church or follow a religion, and Yellow asserts that it contributed to the ardor he later brought to learning tribal values and traditions. A few years after fleeing to California, Yellow joined the Marines and was stationed stateside, narrowly missing the Vietnam War while he completed his G.E.D. Subsequently, he returned to South Dakota and used the G.I. Bill to earn an undergraduate degree from Black Hills College. At the same time, he became involved with the American Indian Movement of the early '70s, a group dedicated to raising cultural consciousness among native peoples.

"Prior to AIM," says Yellow, "Indians were denigrated and it was not such a good thing to be. I credit AIM with beginning my healing regarding the whole boarding school thing."

At Black Hills College, Yellow also began to investigate the Lakota traditions in art. Evidence of this study appears in a small, seemingly ordinary drawing in his living room. Titled "Remembrance" (1998), the piece appears to be a rather direct depiction of life on the reservation. The image comprises three horizontal lines of figures, drawn with colored pencils, atop an antique map of South Dakota, circa 1880. In the top row, a youth, Yellow's grandfather, wears the early twentieth-century clothing of Lakota boys--beaded vest, moccasins, braided hair. A log cabin stands behind him, a few other figures are nearby, and a traditional tepee rests just beyond the cabin, as was customary in those days. These details are almost ethnographic in their precision, but the drawing's autobiographical meaning is deeper.

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