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Alaska Native Artists Showcase Compelling Work In 'This Is Not A Silent Movie'

Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan pt.1, Nicholas Galanin 2007. One of the videos on display at This Is Not A Silent Movie

The work of four contemporary Alaska native artists is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Craft through April. The collection, This Is Not a Silent Movie, is curated by Julie Decker and blurs the lines of tradition and modernity.

The work, ranging from photographs to mixed-media installation, tackles difficult subjects like sexual assault, suicide, loss of language and Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. But the artists’ themes of resilience and hope are also woven throughout the exhibition. Decker states:

They find a space between conflict and resolution, between questioning and criticism, between this generation and the next, and between art and activism.

Arts & Life caught up with the four artists at the exhibition. They shared the inspiration and personal stories behind some of their work.

Da-ka-xeen Mehner (Tlingit/N’ishga)

Da-ka-xeen Mehner (Tlingit/N’ishga)

John Rosman/OPB

Da-ka-xeen Mehner

Da-ka-xeen Mehner’s mixed-media collection “Finding My Song” is an examination of the loss and renaissance of a culture.

Being The Song, 2012; wood and rawhide

Being The Song, 2012; wood and rawhide

Courtesy of Da-ka-xeen Mehner

Mehner never learned his native Tlingit language. Its loss to him, and over time in the community, is explored with an installation of daggers in the gallery. The two-sided blades display Tlingit on one side and the English translation on the other. As the blades grow smaller in a circle, falling into the gallery floor, the language is slowly replaced with English.

Yet on the other wall, lit behind faces stretched into a drum, is the language being passed on. “I have a projection of myself singing songs [on the drums in Tlingit]. It was a process for me to learn our clan songs to pass them on to another generation, to my son.”

The work was inspired by taking his son to Celebration in Juno in the summer. There Mehner’s son fell in love with the dancing and drumming. “It seems like there’s a great rejuvenation of culture going on, and seems to be happening through the dance form,” says Mehner.

“People are making more regalia for themselves, people are learning the songs, learning how to introduce themselves properly in Tlingit, so I’m kind of inspired by that.”

Susie Silook (Yupik/Iñupiaq)

Susie Silook (Yupik/Iñupiaq)

John Rosman/OPB

Susie Silook

Susie Silook’s work draws from her birthplace, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. She is most known for her carvings of heritage dolls from whalebone, ivory and wood.

What Does It Take To See My Heart, 2001; Walrus Ivory

What Does It Take To See My Heart, 2001; Walrus Ivory

John Rosman/OPB

Although Silook sees the work as a departure from the traditional Yupik dolls found on the island nearly 2,000 years ago, they are still present. “I constantly try to maintain that thread from the past and bring it into the contemporary world,” says Silook.

Within these slender, intricate figures are powerful contemporary messages concerning sexual assault against Native women. In 2010, the Justice Department reported one in three Native women reports being raped at some point in their lives. “I’ve used my own personal experience,” says Silook about her work.

Her art aims to create a dialogue, bringing such issues out of the shadows.

Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Aleut)

Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Aleut)

John Rosman /OPB

Nicholas Galanin

“Our cultural voices were, [have been] and continually are suppressed,” says Nicholas Galanin sitting across from his photo, Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter. “My voice is through my creative work.”

Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter, 2012. Digital photograph

Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter, 2012. Digital photograph

Courtesy of Nicholas Galanin

Much of Galanin’s work is concept based, challenging the viewer to engage in a dialogue surrounding a Native American’s place in the United States and society. Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter is a split image of a famous Edward Curtis photograph and Princess Leia from Star Wars.

Curtis is one of the most celebrated and recognized photographers of Native Americans. N. Scott Momaday (the Pulitzer-prize winning Native American author) said in the introduction to Curtis’ Sacred Legacy, he “preserved for us the unmistakable evidence of our involvement in the universe.” 

But Galanin uses Curtis’ work to question how Native Americans were and continue to be portrayed in culture.

“Edward Curtis is responsible for creating a vanishing Indian stereotype, I suppose. Then fast-forward to Hollywood. Look at Hollywood Indians. It’s racism and it’s kind of atrocious to see how native America is represented through that perspective,” says Galanin. “Where do we blur these boundaries?”

Sonya Kelliher-Combs (Iñupiaq/Athabascan)

Sonya Kelliher-Combs (Iñupiaq/Athabascan)

John Rosman/OPB

Sonya Kelliher-Combs

“I like playing with the idea of what is true skin and what is not,” says Sonya Kelliher-Combs. She explores the balance between synthetic and natural objects.

Grey Curl, 2013; Acrylic polymer, human hair, steel pin.

Grey Curl, 2013; Acrylic polymer, human hair, steel pin.

Courtsey of the artist

In this exhibition, her work ranges from ink drawings on gut and sheep intestine with acrylic polymer to wool with reindeer and sheep rawhide. Other pieces include walrus stomach and human hair.

It wasn’t until Kelliher-Combs left Alaska and went to graduate school in Arizona that she started introducing Athabaskan elements from her home into her art. Originally she hung natural objects from her community on the wall for decoration. “Through the process of graduate school I began incorporating those things,” she says. As a whole, Kelliher-Combs sees her work as “historical art.”

“I don’t like the word ‘traditional.’ I think as indigenous people we’re building on traditions every day,” says Kelliher-Combs. “I’m making my own story though my work, but I’m building on the traditions of my people.”

This Is Not A Silent Movie is being shown at the Museum of Contemporary Craft through April 19, 2014. This Is Not A Silent Movie Film Festival will be playing at March 30 at 7 pm at the Hollywood Theater. The festival will feature two short films and a feature length film by Native filmmakers.

View some of the work on display at This Is Not A Silent Movie, an exhibition which showcases the art of four contemporary Alaska native artists.

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