“I like questions. I like when people are really intrigued by my artwork.”
Sierra Edd wants her art to speak to her audience, but she also wants her audience to speak with her; as they engage with the themes she presents, she hopes they will question their positionality.
“For a long time, I was trying to use my artwork as way to educate people, telling people that Natives are still here, we still have a voice,” Sierra explained. Today, while still achieving this goal of bringing awareness, Sierra is more interested in starting conversations about topics that have been historically erased.
Sierra identifies as a Diné, or Navajo, woman. Born on the Navajo reservation at Shiprock, New Mexico, she grew up approximately 2 hours away from this reservation in Durango, Colorado and began creating art around the age of 5 or 6, prompted by her parents, who are both artists. She and her three sisters all grew up creating artwork (check out their website, http://www.eddgirlart.com/about.html), especially during the summer.
Since elementary school, these summers have provided an opportunity for Sierra to share her work; in Santa Fe, there’s a large Indian Art Market every summer in which Sierra’s entire family is involved. By selling her paintings at this market, Sierra has been able to reach a wide audience, even beyond the United States.
At this market, Sierra has also found art that inspires her, and has learned from many of the artists who attend. The work of Shonto Begay, a prominent artist and friend of Sierra’s parents, often looks back at Navajo storytelling traditions. He has helped Sierra think about ways to look at narrative aspects in her work. “For Navajo people, storytelling is a cultural tradition that we have, to tell our creation story, and it’s a way of continuing that process for me,” she said.
Sierra began to explore a more direct inclusion of narrative in her art during high school, when she began a graphic novel chronicling a group of Navajo teenagers in their transition from high school to college. She has also included parts of her grandmother’s story as a Navajo bilingual teacher in New Mexico, because Sierra’s grandparents often inform her work, specifically their experiences with the boarding schools they attended. “I don’t think that mainstream narratives pick up on those stories, so I kind of like to tell them through my artwork,” she said.
Untold histories like these are of central interest to Sierra, and lately she has been doing work on pervasive issues of sexual assault and violence against native women. Some of her paintings over the summer came after the murder of a Navajo woman in a border town, and they became a way for her to process the information. “I try to do my work in a way that’s empowering for women. I have two younger sisters so I feel like when I do my artwork it’s sending them a message about what they can do.”
More recently, Sierra has begun to explore digital mediums, including film and photography. She cites the work of photographer Matika Wilbur as particularly inspiring; Wilbur is travelling across the country to take photos of every tribe that is federally-recognized, calling it Project 562. As a Mellon Mays Fellow, part of Sierra’s research includes talking to people involved in protests in border towns during the 1970s, as well as continuing protests all other the country. She is considering using her art practice to chronicle the stories that she has been hearing.
Preserving historical memory is very important to Sierra, especially on a campus where she initially felt isolated and alone as a Native student. Over the course of her time at Brown, Sierra has found great strength in the Native community. For Sierra, “It’s like a second family.”
When Sierra first came to Brown, she thought she would study Visual Art; she has now switched to Ethnic Studies and is thinking about graduate school and possibly becoming a professor. But Sierra still manages to create art outside of class, and to share it. Her work was recently included in “Native Re-Appropriations,” an art exhibit headed by Professor Adrienne Keene at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.
Another one of Sierra’s recent works is a documentary about Indigenous People’s Day at Brown (watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlrVe-4As0o&t=1233s). She hopes that this documentary will give everyone access to information without expecting Native students at Brown to re-live the pain they experienced. Additionally, she thinks the piece is important for incoming Native students. “I think it’s really important coming in as a Native student to realize that you’re coming into a legacy of activism and people here who are feeling the same things you are feeling.”
At the core of Sierra’s work is empowerment, and through being an artist, Sierra hopes “to be a storyteller for young women” in her community. Her goals and her hope to stimulate discussion make her work a beautiful form of resistance.