A new art gallery in Salt Lake City makes the art of Indigenous peoples more accessible in a metropolitan setting – and highlights the importance of having BIPOC people tell their own stories.
“There really isn’t a Native American gallery here in the Salt Lake Valley,” said Michael Haswood (Diné), and one of two artists featured in the gallery’s first exhibition. “We need a place where Native American artists here in Salt Lake City can express their opinions, who can contribute their stuff – whether it’s pottery, carving, writing, singing and even dance.”
The gallery is operated by Utah Dine Bikeyah, the nonprofit organization run by Indigenous people for 10 years, and housed at the Leonardo, the Museum of Art and Science located at 209 E. 500 South in downtown Salt Lake City. The gallery celebrated its grand opening on Saturday.
At Saturday’s opening, amidst indigenous food prepared by Director of Traditional Food Programs Wilson Atene (Diné) – including blue corn porridge – and traditional games and performances, attendees celebrated what the new space means for indigenous artists.
Gavin Noyes, former executive director of Utah Diné Bikéyah and director of national campaigns at the Conservation Lands Foundation, said at the gallery’s opening that indigenous artists – 80% of indigenous people, he said, are artists in one way or another – have taken a financial hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, due to health restrictions on bookings and a lack of tourism. Noyes helped develop UDB.
Haswood, for example, was the nonprofit’s artist-in-residence in 2021, but because of the pandemic, he didn’t get a chance to mount public screenings. (The residency program typically lasts between six months and a year, said Reem Ikram, the group’s director of digital content and communications.)
Haswood — who grew up in Salt Lake City but also grew up on the reservation — said he’s always been surrounded by the arts. His mother was a pottery maker and his grandmother was a weaver who taught him to always draw clockwise – which he still does today, to get in sync and have good thoughts , did he declare.
Haswood’s art pervades pottery design, Navajo rug design, and sand painting design, using colored pencils and paint. He said he had always been “inspired by Native American color and lands.”
His art — which has traveled to the office of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous person to hold a federal cabinet position — reflects “who he is,” Haswood said, and he strives to connect the modern to the classic.
The other artist whose work is highlighted in the gallery’s first exhibition is current artist-in-residence for Utah Diné Bikéyah, Jessica Wiarda (Hopi). She is biracial; his mother is Hopi. She grew up in Logan, but her mother took her to the reservation every few years.
Wiarda’s art, which ranges from murals to scarves and other garments, blends contemporary colors and patterns with traditional Hopi geometric shapes.
Art has allowed Wiarda to reconnect with her native culture. “Indigenous identity is a bit like old and new coming together, and I really feel like my work represents that,” Wiarda said.
Wiarda created a series of silk scarves, called “clan scarves”, such as the “Paa’iswungwa Hopi Coyote Clan” and “Honwungwa Hopi Bear Clan” designs. She also created a hummingbird-themed scarf, in honor of her grandmother; Wiarda said a hummingbird visited her mother – a sign that told her the artist’s grandmother had died, even before someone called to tell her.
” It’s a way [for] me to share the artwork, making it portable,” Wiarda said. “For everyone – whether you’re not native or native, you can wear it.”
The gallery is on the ground floor of the Leonardo. Utah Diné Bikéyah moved its offices to the museum floor – after the building where they had their Salt Lake City office was demolished to create apartment buildings, said Reem Ikram, director of digital content and communications of the group.
The non-profit organization brings together five tribes – Navajo Nation, Hopi, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian – and “works to heal people and the Earth by helping Indigenous communities protect their ancestral lands culturally significant,” according to the group’s website.
The Salt Lake City office is the group’s second location in Utah; the first is in Bluff, San Juan County, near the northern border of the Navajo Nation.
Making space for Indigenous artists to show and eventually sell their work is a crucial part of Utah Diné Bikéyah’s mission, Ikram said.
“Having an office and a gallery in Salt Lake City is important,” Ikram said, “so that we can educate interested audiences here — because not everyone can get to Bluff or Southeast Utah for information.”