By Laura Marshall Clark (Muscogee Creek)
If you pass him on the street, he’ll flash a big, infectious grin your way. Even if you don’t know him, you just can’t help smiling back. That happy grin belongs to Santa Fe artist Duhon James, known to many as the “Yiiyah Man.” His first love is relief printing, and he works in drawing, painting, and wood and linoleum block printing. Within the printmaking of this Diné artist are beloved symbols of his Ganado, Arizona, home—sheep, corn, family, hogans, stars—and one more thing. Aliens.
Duhon James is Water’s Edge clan, born for Bitter Water clan. He earned his AFA from Diné College in 2011 and BFA in studio art at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe in 2014. He markets his prints across Arizona, New Mexico, and the East Coast, and on his entrepreneurial Etsy shop. I was intrigued by Duhon’s background, art, and art business, his name Yíiyáh Man, and most unusual, his aliens. He’s clearly a storyteller.
Duhon, when did you first know you wanted to be an artist?
Growing up, I would draw and paint. I always looked forward to it because I was expressing myself and what I saw. I didn’t know that I was going to continue with art after high school, but found out Diné College had a degree in art. Someone in my life told me to continue my education no matter what, because they did not have that education growing up. I got my associate of arts degree then went to IAIA in 2012.
What was your experience at IAIA?
That was my first time away from home. My mom dropped me off, and she cried. During my first week, I felt alone and almost called my parents to pick me up. I was scared, but I got through it. My dad told me to be strong. When classes started, I met friends there who also graduated from Diné College. My study began in painting, ceramics, and sculpture, but I came across printmaking. I learned more about wood and linoleum block prints, drypoint, monoprint, and screen printing.
How did IAIA help you develop into the artist you are today?
Instructors helped me explore and experiment in my process to find my comfort. They helped guide me, critique, and improve my skills. In summer 2014, I started small block prints, eight-by-ten-inches, but felt like I was limited until I bought larger linoleum for prints on Stonehenge paper. IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) purchased prints from me. Getting that exposure helped me to participate in markets like Santa Fe Indian Market and Print Riot in Easton, Pennsylvania, so I kept applying and traveling.
Your artwork combines aliens and UFOs with Navajo culture. How did that start?
In the summer of 2009, I was still living in Ganado. One night I was sitting on my sister’s porch texting a friend. We lived next to our parents and siblings who lived in a hogan. Sitting on the steps in the dark, it got quiet—too quiet—no barking from our dogs, no one driving on the highway. I noticed the ground getting brighter. I thought it was moonlight or brightness of the phone screen irritating my eyes. Then I looked up and saw this orb rotating in blue and white about ten feet above me. In that moment, it felt like everything paused …. It only lasted five seconds and flew back into the sky, blending with the stars. I’ve thought about it for years as spiritual or maybe a loved one who was checking up on me. That is how my print of a UFO taking the hogan (Wóshdę́ę́’) came about. It broke traditions, but the block print became a design on 60 T-shirts that were well received at the UFO Festival in Roswell, New Mexico. At IAIA we were given themes and topics to build a series of works, so I began to build a series for myself. I’m comfortable with symbols, landscapes … into block printing, introducing aliens and UFOs into Navajo culture and storytelling. I took a chance and each step was a learning process: doubt, commitment, excitement, time, and patience. I have improved a lot and my prints are stronger now.
Describe your Etsy business venture amid the pandemic.
Charletta Yazzie and I started doing markets and heard from customers about Etsy to sell prints. When I first created an account two years ago, I was excited, but it takes time for people to find your Etsy shop. We promoted our Etsy shop at markets that we attended, and now I’m selling on it. When we were in Easton, the artists and residents there knew about Etsy. I sometimes meet people in Santa Fe who bought prints from me on Etsy.
During this COVID-19, it is hard for artists because collectors are on a tight budget. When things go back to normal, people will start buying artworks. I know it is hard for everyone. I buy artworks and stickers from Native artists on Instagram to help out. I also worry about my family and others because each Navajo community is limited for grocery stores. We donate to a few relief funds, do our best to help out our family and friends, send masks to our Ganado Chapter. Reading the news brings stress, but we will get through this.
Why are you called “Yiiyah Man”?
I did a few designs for Diné College Land Grant Office summer youth camps. I got that name when I was working at a youth camp as one of the interns. Kids wanted to hear scary stories around the campfire, so of course, I told a few. The next day, the kids started calling me Yiiyah Man. Yíiyáh in Navajo means “scary,” an expression parents say to their kids when they don’t listen … like something scary is coming, and you better listen.
I want to teach printmaking in the Navajo Nation for grade school or college level. Right now I’m doing sketches for my next block print, and I would like to thank everyone I’ve met at markets and galleries. Thank you for supporting me and it means a lot. Thank you.