A new Salt Lake City gallery makes space for Indigenous artists to tell their stories

Utah Diné Bikéyah opens gallery and office space inside The Leonardo museum, in downtown Salt Lake City.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artist Michael Haswood (Diné) displays his acrylic paint and colored pencil artwork, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.

A new art gallery in Salt Lake City is making the art of Indigenous people more accessible in a metropolitan setting — and pointing out the importance of having BIPOC people tell their own stories.

“There’s not really a Native American gallery here in the Salt Lake Valley,” said Michael Haswood (Diné), and one of the two artists featured in the gallery’s debut exhibition. “We need somewhere where Native American artists here in Salt Lake City can voice their opinion, who can bring their stuff in — whether it be pottery, sculpture, writing, singing and even dancing.”

The gallery is operated by Utah Diné Bikéyah, the 10-year-old Indigenous-led nonprofit, and housed within The Leonardo, the art-and-science museum at 209 E. 500 South in downtown Salt Lake City. The gallery celebrated its grand opening on Saturday.

At Saturday’s opening, amid the Indigenous food prepared by traditional food programs director Wilson Atene (Diné) — including blue corn mush — and traditional games and performances, those attending celebrated what the new space means for Indigenous artists.

Gavin Noyes, former executive director of Utah Diné Bikéyah and national campaigns director at 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 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, because of health restrictions on reservations and a lack of tourism. Noyes helped develop UDB.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artist Michael Haswood (Diné), speaks at the Utah Diné Bikéyah's Indigenous art gallery grand opening, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.

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 any public showings. (The residency program usually lasts between six months and a year, said Reem Ikram, the group’s digital content and communications director.)

Haswood — who was raised in Salt Lake City, but also brought up on the reservation — said he has always been surrounded by the arts. His mother was a pottery designer, and his grandmother was a weaver who taught him to always draw clockwise — which he still does today, to keep himself in sync and to have good thoughts, he said.

Haswood’s art infuses pottery design, Navajo rug design and sand painting designs, using colored pencils and paint. He said he’s always been “inspired by color and Native American lands.”

His art — which has traveled all the way to the office of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous person to hold a federal cabinet post — reflects “who he is,” Haswood said, and he strives to connect the modern with the classic.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessica Wiarda (Hopi) sets up her tables and booth for her art pieces at an event hosted by Utah Diné Bikéyah on Saturday, Feb. 26,2022.

The other artist whose work is highlighted in the gallery’s debut exhibition is the current artist-in-residence for Utah Diné Bikéyah, Jessica Wiarda (Hopi). She is biracial; her 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 apparel items, blends contemporary colors and designs with traditional Hopi geometric shapes.

Art has allowed Wiarda to reconnect with her Indigenous culture. “Native identity is kind of like the old and new coming together, and definitely I feel like my work represents that,” Wiarda said.

Wiarda has made a series of silk scarves, called the “clan scarves,” such as a “Paa’iswungwa Hopi Coyote Clan” and “Honwungwa Hopi Bear Clan” design. She created a hummingbird-themed scarf as well, in honor of her grandmother; Wiarda said a hummingbird once 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, by making it wearable,” Wiarda said. “For everyone — whether you’re not Indigenous or Indigenous, you can wear it.”

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessica Wiarda (Hopi), displays her fabrics and art pieces at the Utah Diné Bikéyah new Indigenous art gallery on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.

The gallery sits on the ground floor of The Leonardo. Utah Diné Bikéyah has moved its offices upstairs in the museum — after the building where they used to have their Salt Lake City office was demolished to create apartment buildings, said Reem Ikram, the group’s digital content and communications director.

The nonprofit brings together five tribes — Navajo Nation, Hopi, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian — and “works toward healing of people and the Earth by supporting indigenous communities in protecting their culturally significant, ancestral lands,” according to the group’s website.

The Salt Lake City office is the group’s second location in Utah; the first is in Bluff, in San Juan County, near the northern border of the Navajo Nation.

Making space for Indigenous artists to show and possibly sell their work is a crucial part of Utah Diné Bikéyah’s mission, Ikram said.

“Having a Salt Lake City office and gallery is important,” Ikram said, “so that we can educate the audience that is interested up here — because not everyone can go down to Bluff or southeastern Utah for information.”