NEW YORK — A light scent of wine and sweat filled the vast gallery as the chatter of art aficionados grew to an incessant murmur. A Black woman in a black-and-white coat posed in front of a 14-foot-wide abstract work constructed from a half-million glass beads — tiny gold, blue, gray, red, black and white bugle beads.

The coat's stripes formed a new pattern against the triangular designs of "Wopila | Lineage," by Shakopee-based artist Dyani White Hawk. Positioned at the fifth-floor entrance to the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York City — a barometer of "who's hot" in American art — the piece greeted visitors while commanding them to look.

At the VIP opening party March 29, White Hawk's mom, Sandy, watched in amazement as fabulously dressed patrons wandered by.

"These people from L.A. came to check her out," she said, pointing at Esther Kim Varet, whose influential gallery Various Small Fires also has outposts in Seoul and Dallas.

"Varet, rhymes with carrot," she muttered, hunching over her smartphone as she frantically googled restaurants that might accommodate the artist's family, including husband Danny Polk and their daughters Nina, 19, and Tusweča, 8 ½.

White Hawk, who is Sičáŋgu Lakota, and Pao Houa Her, a Hmong-American photographer based in Blaine, are among 63 artists in this year's 80th edition of the biennial.

More than just representing the state, the two artists feel they can't make their work without their Minnesota communities.

Exposure at the Whitney Biennial was crucial for Twin Cities-based photographer Alec Soth, whose work was included in the 2004 edition.

"The show doesn't necessarily make or break careers, but in my case it made galleries and publishers look at me differently," he said. "The art world in the U.S. runs through New York … and the Whitney Biennial gave me the NYC art-world stamp of approval."

Cultural pride

A prowling tiger peeking through thick green tropical leaves. A young Hmong man smiling sweetly at the center of a giant flower-adorned heart. High-contrast photos of young Hmong women from dating sites, surrounded by flowers. Black-and-white portraits of Hmong elders in jungle-like landscapes.

These are part of several photo series on view at the Whitney by Her, who was born in Laos in 1982 and fled the country with her family at age 3.

Dyani White Hawk on 'Wopila | Lineage'

"Wopila" is like a big thank-you. ... It is a moment of gratitude and recognition of the contributions of Indigenous women to the history of abstraction, and the generations of Lakota women but also women at large on this land base that have helped shape what we understand to be abstraction and art history. And a moment of gratitude for all they have contributed to where I get to play, in that lineage today.

This piece wouldn't exist if I didn't have 20 people from my community who helped. I started it in 2020 and it took about nine months to bead. I pull from the history of Western abstraction and easel-painting abstraction, as well, so recognizing all of those but also really strongly centering Lakota abstraction, Lakota symbolism, Lakota aesthetics in a space like this, is really important to me. Not all of my work is super direct in its references to Lakota art forms and aesthetics. It is if you know it, but it doesn't have to be if you don't know it or don't read up more.

Pao Houa Her on 'Guy Cousin in Thailand'

The photo was taken in Chiang Rai, Thailand, atop a mountain. People from Bangkok will come and chant there. In the winter the clouds come in and rest right below where this space is, and it really feels like heaven on Earth. There is also something really hooky about that floral that he is standing in between. As somebody who lives on that mountain — he lives nearby — he's never been able to go up there as a tourist, because you have to pay money.

People could clearly see I was not a person from there because I was this chubby girl and there aren't that many in Laos. Also, I speak Hmong but I have this American accent. They were really curious why I was there. Like, "What are you photographing? That doesn't make sense." I am not tied to the place. I was born there but I don't have any memory of it. There's something about the homeland I'll never understand but my parents long for it. Everywhere they go, they look for it.

Her mom, Mao Lee, and four of her six siblings made the trip to New York. (Her niece and nephew, Vince and Kailee, whom she takes care of, couldn't make the trip, though, while Her's dad had to stay home and feed the chickens — farming is very important to Hmong communities.)

Their faces glowed with pride as they viewed Her's work at a preview. Younger brother Allan gleefully gazed at a photo showing two red plastic chairs and a poster of an idyllic waterfall.

"It really captures a slice of the Hmong-American experience," he said. "Those two red seats — I've seen that so many times."

Her's younger sister Celina most loved the tiger photo, based on a family myth that when their grandfather died, his spirit went into a tiger that watched over their grandma.

"It is a reminder that my brother-in-law, who we lost very suddenly last year, is still here watching over us," she said, referring to the sudden death of Her's husband, Ya Yang, 13 months ago.

The idea of museums is very much a Western concept, something that's only recently been introduced to Hmong since their displacement by the Vietnam War.

"My mom says she is very happy because there is no Hmong representation and I am the only one," said Her, translating her mom's words from Hmong. "She says she likes the photos because there are some that remind her of her youth."

A collective effort

An Indigenous jewelry designer from Canada, Tania Larsson, stared at "Wopila | Lineage," a grin forming as her eyes scanned the endless rows of shimmering bugle beads mounted on an 8- by 14-foot aluminum panel.

"How did you make it look so even?" she asked White Hawk. "If you look at the piece from afar, you're like, 'Oh, it's swaths of color,' but when you go closer it looks like quillwork."

White Hawk created the massive piece in collaboration with 20 community members, including 18 bead workers. Her husband constructed a bridge so the artist could perch above the panel to sketch out its geometric design, which references traditional Lakota abstraction.

"Is it your first show?" a woman with caked-on makeup asked White Hawk after posing in front of the work. Smiling, the artist humbly shook her head no.

"Our life is simple," said her mom's husband, George McCauley (Omaha tribe). "Our friends we hang out with could never imagine something like this. We are not artists. The Whitney — it means nothing to us … but over time I started comprehending. It is so amazing to have a Native person reach that level, and it would be a good example to a lot of Indian artists out there."

The biennial's curators, David Breslin and former Walker Art Center staffer Adrienne Edwards, began organizing the show before the global pandemic and racial reckoning. But cultural shifts certainly informed it.

Art-world alienation

In 2020, Her had an exhibition of several lightbox photographs at the Hmong Market Place in St. Paul, organized by Minneapolis-based Midway Contemporary Art.

"That was really hard for me," Her said over coffee with White Hawk the morning of the opening. "There were Hmong elders and people from the community who saw the work and were like, 'How can we buy this?' ... I felt really embarrassed to even give them a price."

"Because you know the values are so [messed up] when you say that," White Hawk exclaimed. "You know when the words are coming out of your mouth … like, 'It's a market, what do you mean I can't afford it?' "

Her has six photo series that will rotate during the biennial's five-month run; three are on view now. One depicting Hmong veterans, shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2015, will be on display around July 4.

Her made sure to give the subjects of her photos copies of prints. White Hawk, for her part, makes earrings and blankets that are affordable to community on

"It feels repulsive, gross, against your own value systems and the relationships you have with community, to say, 'You can't access this,'" White Hawk said.

The two artists credit such Minnesota institutions as the McKnight and Jerome foundations and the State Arts Board for their ability to create work in the Midwest and still get noticed by coastal art-world players.

"I was so excited that you were in this the same year — that we were both in this together — for that same conversation," White Hawk told Her over coffee. I am done playing either/or's ... I don't want to play that [art-world] game and I want it all."

Although the clash between art world and community is tricky to navigate, both artists feel their success could inspire younger artists of color.

"It is exciting for me," said White Hawk, "when I really think about the young, Native and BIPOC students that are coming up ... and say, 'If they can make it, I can make it.' "

Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It's Kept
When: Through Sept. 5.
Where: Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St., New York.
Info: or 212-570-3600.