Jolene Nenibah Yazzie
Working from a few strong images related to imagination and memory, Jolene Nenibah Yazzie’s graphic design draws the artistic and conceptual elements into a pleasurable form with a distinct, yet subtle, narrative voice. Yazzie’s work ranges from skateboard designs to posters. She tries not to imitate other graphic artists, but creates her elements from the ground up with inspiration from comic book illustration. Growing up on the Navajo reservation in Lupton, Arizona, Yazzie was first introduced to the art medium of pen and ink. “When I was seven years old my brother threw me a picture and said, ‘Here, try and draw this,’” she remembers. It was a picture of a skull holding a guitar in a graveyard by the artist Pushead. “I said, ‘That’s too hard.’” Yet she eventually tried, revealing the undeniable talent she continues to nurture.
Since she began drawing, Yazzie has disciplined herself in learning computer illustration using a variety of software programs such as Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, Flash, Bryce and Rhino. She is currently working on her BA in Visual Communications at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Crisp, clean, black lines, and the color red, representing power, are like weapons Yazzie applies in her arsenal of design work. The “Woman Warrior” theme brings praise from artists and designers alike. She has developed an edgy, stylish, and dramatic portraiture of Indigenous women as warriors, a view rarely depicted in the art and design industry. She is inspired by Indigenous history, photography, comic books, animation and martial arts. According to Yazzie, the characters she captures are inner spirits from the women in her life depicted as superheroes. Wind-whipped, long black hair, fierce eye expressions, a bow and arrow or a hatchet in hand, ready to go to battle, each character zeros in on the emotional movement Yazzie communicates to the viewer. Yazzie’s intriguing sense of line, color, and concept is visionary and will surely push the boundaries of contemporary graphic design and art. “I often wonder how far my artwork will push me,” Yazzie says of her intermingled creative talent.
I cannot stress how important it is to develop both as an artist and as a person. I have always set very demanding goals for myself in both regards and my dedication to achieving my goals cannot be demonstrated more clearly than the amount of care and effort I put into all forms of artwork that I’ve explored. However, despite taking pride in all that I’ve accomplished so far, I am well aware that there’s still so much more that I have to do in order to accomplish the major goals I’ve set for myself, especially since, as I strive to do so, more aspirations arise and new dreams are developed. My artwork is such a major part of who I am that the development I undergo as a person has profound effects on how I express myself through my art.
Life's lessons and experiences continue to provide me with the opportunity to express my artistic nature through different mediums and as such I’ve been able to go beyond anything I ever thought I was capable of. Starting out, I used pencil drawings to recreate images of heroes that inspired me in one way or another. From there, I’ve explored painting, photography, graffiti, watercolours, graphic design and most recently film to not only develop those heroes of my youth, but also to create original ones of my own. It’s in this way that my development as a person has been directly linked to my development as an artist.
Now I’m excited by the opportunities provided by combining all mediums, and the new possibilities this will present for developing my artwork as I push myself to new limits. It is through my artwork that I’ve managed to play a leadership role not only in my community but outside it as well, for I’ve used it to express a strong conviction that challenges the modern conventional definitions of the role of Indigenous women. I strive to express in my artwork the beauty of creation and the inner warrior spirit found in all women that is not often appreciated or recognized by the euro-centric society that has transformed traditional values. In this way, I’ve not only been able to develop confidence in myself, but I’ve been able to show other women how to recognize and appreciate the strength that is present inside themselves as well. I’ve tried to create through my characters positive role models for females of all ages that serve to reestablish respect and admiration for the power and beauty inherent in them and in nature. It has been an accomplishment that has not been easy to achieve and an aspiration that continues to bring me face to face with more obstacles the more I pursue it. I’ve had to overcome many personal as well as artistic obstacles to get to where I am today and I know there will be many more.
Not only have the characters that I’ve created been inspired by the women in my life and the terrible struggles they have had to overcome, but some have also represented a more personal revelation of my sexual orientation. I have been drawing for as long as I can remember, but I’m only just now becoming comfortable with being “out” as a lesbian, not only as a person but as an artist as well. Every piece that I create has a hidden story in it, a message that would otherwise to difficult for me to convey. Some of my characters are representative of family members that have overcome abuse, neglect, rape, and other atrocities that seem to be common in the lives of Indigenous women. Most of my characters are women that I’ve loved at one point or another, women who’ve also inspired me with their own personal stories of struggle as well, but women who’ve also broken my heart at the same time. Each time I create a new piece, I push myself to uphold my values and convictions and test the limits of my comfort to convey a deeper message to those who see my work.