Navajo artist Robyn Tsinnajinnie isn’t too worried about backlash from more traditional tribal members about her subject matter or the humor in her paintings. “They can laugh at me all they want but at the end of the day, I know what I’m doing and what I want to do.
“I’m happy with my decision to be an artist, but I know it won’t be easy,” the 22-year-old said. “It’ll be hard, but it’s what I would rather do. It’s a hardship I want. It’s my choice.”
Tsinnajinnie, who is one of more than 30 artists curated into the 2019 Indian Market: EDGE show and sale, focuses on the evolution of the Navajo woman in her work, painting them in situations that are often both confrontational and funny. In her 2018 acrylic-on-canvas, Grandma, a woman gives the viewer the finger. “Grandma, to me, is a humorous piece because it shows that we, as women, can fit the standards of appearing ‘ladylike’ but still give our straight-up opinion on what people expect of us,” the artist said.
She has three paintings in IM: EDGE, a contemporary-art adjunct of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts’ annual Indian Market, on the Santa Fe Plaza. The EDGE event is held at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center on Saturday, Aug. 17, and Sunday, Aug. 18.
Asked if she thinks of her art as edgy, Tsinnajinnie (pronounced SINNA-jinnie) said, “I think so. I think a lot of it is surprising. I think a lot of people don’t expect this, especially from Native young women, but that’s what I like about it. I like to be edgy. I like to be in left field because I remember people like me.”
The artist, who will soon graduate from the Institute of American Indian Arts with a bachelor of fine arts degree, grew up on the Navajo Nation in the Crownpoint, New Mexico, area and suffered culture shock after a childhood move to Utah. “After that, I knew that I was different and that was okay, and I want to use that to my advantage.”
She began making art when she was in high school. She recently described her juxtapositions of graffiti with images of the female body at that time as “a way of breaking away from being viewed as just a female.” After her graduation from high school, she decided to pursue a career as an artist and moved to Santa Fe.
Her classes at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), including those in figure drawing and color theory, strengthened her artistic abilities, and she wasted little time applying them to subjects that were all her own.
Irene, one of the three paintings Tsinnajinnie will show at IM: EDGE, represents her grandmother. A woman, wearing a red dress, sits in front of a table, on which there is a stack of cash, a cup of coffee, and pieces of candy. The figure is holding money in her hand. That’s rare, she said of the money and other items pictured. “Especially for a woman,” Tsinnajinnie said. “And she’s wearing a sheepskin, which was a bigger thing, too, because that was their source of income as sheepherders. ... It’s just me wanting to point out how far we’ve come.
“A lot of what I add into my paintings are luxury items that were hard to get a hold of during that time, but it also made us feel more powerful.”
What about the severed arm, its hand clutching what appears to be a ponytail — perhaps Irene’s — on the floor? “That’s just me having fun, just me playing with my audience. I like to have people laugh at my stuff, I like people to really stare at it and wonder why these things are there.”
The painting is full of references to traditional Navajo sheep culture. On the walls are a framed desert landscape and a framed portrait of a sheep. A wool spinner leans against a wall. The largest object on the table will likely be a mystery to many non-Navajo people but is essential to Navajo tradition: a pair of sheep shears. “I think it’s funny, and I think we take things so seriously, but how are we going to change, how are we going to move on if we can’t laugh about ourselves?”
The sheepherding references in Irene draw a direct line to her grandmother, she said. “My mom’s mom had a lot of sheep and income and she was very powerful, but she wasn’t taken seriously,” Tsinnajinnie said. “I’ve had a lot of strong women in my life, and I feel that this is a way for me to acknowledge them.”
Her Irene has blue skin. “All my women are colors. Irene is blue, but others are yellow or pink or orange. I don’t think we need to worry about what color they are.”
Irene is the first in a series of seven that she wants to complete for a senior exhibit at IAIA. The concept is a comparison of “what a strong woman looks like today to what a strong woman looked like in the early 20th century,” she said. “I’m preparing for our show in December. I should have all seven done, so people can come to IAIA and see all my ladies in one place.”
After that, it’ll be time for something new — perhaps more women or maybe something else. Tsinnajinnie said she’s interested in abstraction and the possibility it can convey more emotion. “I feel like I’m holding onto a lot of unnecessary anger, I feel like I’m absorbing all this anger from other people, and I don’t want to release it wrongly or to hold that in. Painting, for me, is a way to relieve that, to paint it, look at it, adjust it, and then move on.”
Some may disapprove of her portrayals of Navajo women, she said, “especially [people] from my culture, but at the end of the day, I will always be part of my people, I will always be part of the earth, and having that underneath makes me more confident.”
What does she want to communicate to her viewers? “I want people to laugh,” she said. “I want people to smile, because I add in a lot of little punches, little kick lines. And I want my art as a reminder for our young people to see how far we’ve come. And most importantly, it’s for me — to heal, to process what’s inside of me, and whatever people want to feel about it, that’s fine.
“My art makes me happy.” ◀
▼ Indian Market: EDGE
▼ 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17, and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18
▼ Santa Fe Community Convention Center, 201 W. Marcy Street
▼ Free; 505-983-5220, firstname.lastname@example.org