ASU graduate brings cultural understanding to university

TEMPE, Ariz. - Tiffiney Yazzie spent the early years of her life with her grandparents who live according to traditional Navajo ways in northern Arizona.

Yazzie, who graduates in May, brought an understanding of the place she was raised to Arizona State University through her photography, especially through Diné Bik'eyah: Familiar Views, Foreign Eyes. The photo exhibition showcases moments in time on the reservation where Yazzie and fellow photography majors spent a week at her grandparent's home near Chinle last year with no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing.

"Tiffiney has combined her love of photography with her respect and dedication to her cultural background as a Native American of the Navajo tribe," wrote Adriene Jenik, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts School of Art director. Diné Bik'eyah was shown at ASU locations and the Olney Gallery in Phoenix.

"It was a great experience," Yazzie said. "My friends keep asking me when we are going to go back to the reservation."

That trip may come soon after Yazzie graduates with a double major in photography and art history from ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Her final bachelors of fine arts project showcases her mother, Rosita Yazzie, who focused on providing the best for her children while working and getting an education herself. Yazzie came to the Valley to live with her mother when she was 10 years old.

"It was quite a drastic change to get used to the hustle and bustle of the city," Yazzie said. "Our relationship has really grown. I'm very close to my mother."

Documenting her mother through photos expresses Tiffiney's love and her dedication to Navajo traditions.

"Certainly the pictures are full of love and warmth, but in Tiffiney's images the toughness and determination to live the traditional way emerge as part of her mother's extraordinary beauty," said Bill Jenkins, ASU Photography associate professor.

Yazzie's mother always encouraged her daughter to do her best, including taking college-level classes while she was in high school. "My mom pushed me in high school, but I'm glad she did because it really does help," she said.

Yazzie initially dreamed of being a doctor before finding her passion in art history and coming to ASU where she discovered photography.

"I love the idea of capturing an image and expressing myself through it," she said. Her work features family portraiture - self portraits, her mother, grandparents, cousins and friends.

Favorite memories at ASU include spending time with her friends during all-night sessions in the photo lab, one-on-one talks and feedback in class. She has been active in the Student Photography Association where she helped organize a silent auction and she has participated in many student shows.

"Through photo club she reaches out to other students to support and encourage their involvement in our photography program," said Liz Allen, faculty mentor and Northlight Gallery director. "She is a role model for her fellow photo students and all native students on campus."

In addition, she served as the official photographer for the Map(ping) project, participates in workshops and symposiums, curates shows and regularly shows her work in competitive exhibits at Northlight Gallery.

Yazzie is looking forward to graduation when many of her family members will come for the ceremony from the reservation. For that, she's grateful to have the event in a large venue, where she counts on filling up at least two rows with extended family members.

"My grandmother on my mother's side had 13 children. I have a huge family," Yazzie laughed. "We're going to have to take a big panorama shot."

After graduation, Yazzie will return home to the reservation where she'll spend time with family, finish photo projects and perhaps pursue teaching art to grade-school children.

"Tiffiney's record while in school represents a firm foundation on which to build a lasting career in the visual arts that will continue to relate her cultural heritage and her creative passion," Jenik wrote. "Tiffiney represents the motivated, talented, and involved artist-citizen the School of Art has been proud to have as a student."

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