Seeing Red

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

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.

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.

"This image depicts the systematic efforts by white society to take the land and destroy my people," Yellow says. "It documents three generations of my family being sent to boarding school. It has been the policy of the federal government since my grandfather's time to counteract family influence by removing kids from the families."

Since the image is no larger than 15 inches in width or height, such specifics are difficult to make out until Yellow points to them. He explains that Lakota art often involved oral storytelling: Artists would stand in front of their work and offer a narrative to go with it. On the right of the top line of figures, Yellow says, a federal soldier approaches the boy to take him away from his family. "When my grandfather got to the school," he says, "they cut his hair, took his vest and moccasins, and gave him government-issue overalls. They took everything from him."

Yellow points to an old man on the left side of the drawing, his grandfather's grandfather, who carries a sack of Lakota food and medicines for the boy to take so he will be able to keep something of his band with him. The middle row of figures depicts Yellow's father, a child who so dreaded returning to his government boarding school one fall that he let a yard full of horses escape in the hope that his acts would postpone the school year. In the bottom row of figures, Yellow depicts himself as a youth, standing next to his sister and looking expectant, suitcases in hand, as a social worker nears. In the distance, his older brother runs away, fleeing the boarding school to return to his grandparents on the reservation.


Yellow's troubles with white education have followed him into adulthood. The artist studied in an M.F.A. program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the late '80s but found that at this level, too, his ethnic identification complicated his progress in the program. "When I was in graduate school, I worked hard to connect the gap between the Native American art tradition and Western art traditions," he says. "But my professors would say, 'Quit hiding behind your ethnicity.' Which I think was a disingenuous way of saying: 'Assimilate.' I realized I couldn't do that, so I quit after two years."

After leaving Madison, Yellow returned to the Cheyenne River Reservation and lived there for a while. The atmosphere on the reservation, though, felt oppressive to him. Yellow reports that the few exhibition options for native artists were controlled by non-Indians, and he believes that these people exploited Indian talent. Plus, much of the Indian art, he says, failed to address any of the cultural concerns or political issues that Yellow considered important. He moved around for a few years, then, to such cities as Seneca, New York; Gary, Indiana; and Chicago, Illinois, in search of opportunities, before eventually settling in Minneapolis.

Now, six years after moving here, he is active in tribal cultural life, visiting South Dakota every few months and helping to organize Sun Dance ceremonies at the Prairie Island reservation in Minnesota. He writes poetry and essays about the traditions and history of the Lakota and their art. At the same time, Yellow has made a conscious choice to live off the reservation and to try to make a career here.

As Yellow discusses some of his recent work, he walks over to a bookshelf and pulls out two large volumes of art history: a book of Northern Plains Indian art from the early part of this century; and a catalog made for an exhibition on Plains Indian art organized by the American Federation of Arts in 1997 at the Drawing Center in New York. Yellow flips through the pages, describing how the contextual meaning behind his paintings often comes from older aesthetic traditions. During cavalry expeditions in the last century, naturalist artists traveled with the troops to record life on the Plains--the original source material for much of this century's romanticized "Western" art. At the time, however, tribal artists were inspired by these cavalry draftsmen to make their own pieces on ledger paper. Though the tribal artists worked in a less "naturalistic" manner than the anonymous cavalry artists, in many ways their depiction of the hardships and suffering the American Army brought West were more accurate.  

A similar push and pull between Lakota traditions and the broader Western tradition can be found in a piece by Yellow, "This Is Me" (1998), currently on display at Intermedia Arts. This self-portrait includes an image of the artist in the center of the canvas wearing a colorful Hawaiian shirt, and it is rendered in raw primary colors that make him seem somehow more vital or intense than in real life. Over the figure's head are graphic markings conventional to Lakota representation--wavy lines and shapes that lend a cultural significance to the picture. Alongside these are large block-lettered words in Yellow's two languages: Lakota, transliterated into the roman alphabet, and English.

"People have a difficult time with identity in this country because our identity is made up of many elements," Yellow says when asked about the mixture of styles, languages, and motifs in this self-portrait. "We aren't homogeneous people anymore. We can't live by old ways. Still, it doesn't have to be either/or."

This dual self-conception carries over into the way that Yellow hopes to have his work received. On one hand, he'd like to be free to address his own anger and the anger of Indian people against the culture at large. On the other hand, he'd like his work to be accepted and taken seriously by a largely white art market and cultural establishment. This quiet conflict surfaces as Yellow speaks about a work that recently showed in the Absence/Presence exhibition at the Nash Gallery, a two-panel painting called "Last Stand" (1998). In this piece, dozens of bright-red Native American warriors atop fanciful horses surround a small band of white cavalrymen. The warriors' faces are decals from the Cleveland Indians' mascot, "Chief Wahoo," and they smile obscenely as they carry M-16 rifles. The scene is so ridiculous and overplayed, the colors so bright and viscerally directed, that the work's satirically political message seems blatant and uncomplicated. Yet while Yellow intends to provoke the viewer, he also argues that the work contains a richer significance.

"At first this painting may seem humorous or satirical," Yellow says, pointing at the canvases on the floor. "But for me it has more meaning....My grandfather fought in the battle against Custer, so I know the truth behind the myth of that battle."

Yellow's use of an overwhelming band of grinning warriors is intended not only to ridicule the myths of white society, but to stand as a metaphor for the dehumanization of native people. Warrior societies such as the Lakota, according to Yellow, did not revel in battle or use great force to kill white settlers. Instead, they had established codes of conduct and belief systems that governed how they waged battle. Many of these customs found their way into Indian artwork.

To explain this point, Yellow turns to an image in his book of Ledger Art. The picture is a dynamic scene of two warriors dressed in bright costumes atop a galloping horse. There is only a slight hint of a horizon, and the sky is filled with what looks like whizzing insects.

"Take this scene. These tadpoles," Yellow says gesturing toward the painting, "are an old convention of my people for bullets, and this image is called 'Rescue of a Comrade Under Heavy Fire.' But it's not a straight depiction of warfare. In Plains tradition, societies were brotherhoods...This image is a depiction of that ideal--the idea that each person would risk his life for another."

Yellow speaks of other ritual codes as he leafs through the images. Lakota warriors would never turn their back on their enemy--to do so would be the highest shame. The highest honor for Lakota warriors was not killing an enemy, which was thought of as somewhat shameful, but rather to touch an armed enemy and survive to tell of it, as though living through danger but not profiting by it was the most noble ideal.

This same code may be the best metaphor for Yellow's approach to art making. Back in 1994, after he won Best of Show in the Northern Plains Tribal Art Exhibition, Yellow was given a one-person show. But, Yellow suspects, because of the small controversy regarding his sculpture, he was unable to sell any work and was treated rather brusquely by white visitors. Which is to say, while he made no killing, at least he can say he managed to touch his enemy.  


Francis Yellow's work in the show Red and Black: Chasing the Spirit is at Intermedia Arts through May 2; (612) 871-4444.

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