Art exhibition merges indigenous themes with modern art

Various artists' works are displayed on campus for the Neoglyphix event.
Various Native American artists’ works are displayed on campus for the Neoglyphix event.

Dwayne Manuel discovered his interest for spray painting Native American themed modern art in 1998 when his sister started buying hip hop magazines and brought them home.

“She started bringing these magazines in and these magazines had little graffiti sections in there which were pretty cool,” Manuel says.

Manuel has been drawing since he was three. He was mesmerized by graffiti and eventually picked up spray painting and tagging.

“I love seeing the color and stuff and these walls painted with graffiti…,” Manuel says. “It kind of opened my eyes when I started seeing it on the streets when we’d go into town.”

Little did he know, his love for graffiti would eventually become an outlet for artists throughout the country to reflect on Native American heritage and further incorporate indigenous themes in contemporary modern art.

Manuel is one of them. He began painting pieces that incorporate the history of his tribe, Onk Akimel O’odham, since he was drawn to the graffiti he had seen in his sister’s hip hop magazines. A lot of the designs in his artwork are influenced his mother’s basketweaving.


In Manuel’s culture, the men are not allowed to weave baskets, as it is a role designated to women. Manuel liked the designs on the baskets so he began drawing and painting them. “It’s my way of kind of honoring my mother and what she does in her artwork,” Manuel says.

After graduating from the University of Arizona, Manuel has collaborated with Nike to release the Desert Journey Collection. The collaborative line includes shoes and hats with designs of whirlwinds and war shields inspired by his O’odham heritage. “A majority of my work references my culture, my people and my experiences,” Manuel says.

In 2014, Manuel, in part with Martina Dawley, assistant curator for American Indian Relations at the Arizona State Museum, hosted the first Neoglyphix event. The idea to showcase the work of indigenous artists from throughout the country came about when Manuel and Dawley were chatting in a parking lot.

“I said, ‘Dude let’s do it on the front lawn’,” Dawley says. “Then he’s all like, ‘Yeah, can we do that?’ I’m all like, ‘Yeah, all I have to do is fill out a U of A permit.’”

Manuel, along with three other artists, sat down to brainstorm ideas for the Neoglyphix. They decided to build six, eight-foot by four-foot cubes on the University of Arizona’s lawn, providing two panels for each artist. Manuel did not paint the first year; he was too busy catering to the 13 artists showcased at the event.


Dawley and Manuel put together the event to educate people about Native American history. “The effect we wanted or the goals we wanted was to inform people that we are here,” Dawley says. “…the artists wanted to show that there are other ways of expressing your artistic styles to show that you still do have cultural values.”

The symbolism inspired by traditional Native American themes is from an indigenous person’s perspective documenting their history. For example, a Navajo wedding basket shows all the different directions of the sacred mountains, clouds and water, which in turn leads to the story of first man and first woman.

“My goal is to keep these symbols relevant in modern times because there’s a lot of distractions out there that can take away from any one of our people…,” Manuel says.

Manuel says that the inclusion of Native American themes and history in modern art could be controversial due to issues of cultural appropriation. To address such issues, he and Dawley invited Jared Yazzie, a Navajo designer, to do a fashion show and put Native American themed fashion in the spotlight.

“He has designs that are geared toward Native themes be it geometrical designs but a lot of times they’re messages and what’s going on today,” Dawley says.

While Manuel and other indigenous Native American artists are working to bring indigenous themed art to the forefront of the graffiti world, it is clear to see the cultural pride that is reflected in each one of their pieces. Dawley admires the fact that Manuel’s mother supports his artwork despite him using a unique outlet to represent his heritage.

“To me that really shows his pride in not only his culture but his mom really cherishing what she does and carrying on that tradition and wanting to express that in his own form,” Dawley say.

Yuji Miyaji here is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at 

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