Cultured display

Exhibition shows new and old in Native art

Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2005


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  detail from "Protecting Our Children" by Nancy Radtke

"Henaahye" by Kathleen Carlo

For thousands of years, artwork has been an integral part of the lives of Alaska Natives and it was incorporated into all aspects of their lives — from sacred clan objects to ornately designed houses, utilitarian tools, equipment and clothing.

This artistic tradition continues today and can be seen at "Alaska 2005: Native Arts Now" — an exhibition of traditional and contemporary Native artwork on display at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

The exhibition, which opened May 2 and runs trough Sept. 16, features 58 works from 26 Alaska Native artists with cultural origins from across the state.

"It's not just wall art, it is a happening," said Ron Senungetuk, the guest curator for the show and an Alaska Native of Inupiat heritage who now resides in Homer.

He also has an extensive background in contemporary Native art, having taught in the University of Alaska Fairbanks art department for 25 years until his retirement in 1986.

Senungetuk said all the participants in this invitational exhibit make art based on their own experiences, and their desire to express art may connect to any or all of three simplified and chronological sets of factors.


detail from "Thomas Schulz Bear Robe" by Clarissa Hudson

He explained the three in his curator's statement about the show.

"Prior to Western contact, all Native groups in Alaska produced functional as well as artistic works needed for their livelihood," said Senungetuk.

This art wasn't just appreciated by Natives for its aesthetic qualities but was valued for its social and spiritual dimensions, as well.

"Nearly all 'art' works contained motifs symbolizing self and tribal identification and imagery that was often anthropomorphic," he added.

This led to a second factor affecting Native artwork, since the foreign explorers and traders who first arrived on the shores of Alaska demonstrated a keen interest in acquiring this art.

It was eagerly sought as curios and artifacts by succeeding waves of museum collectors, anthropologists and tourists — particularly during the late 1800s and early 1900s.


"Arctic Splash" by MaryJane Melovidov

"Soon after Western contact, many Alaska Native groups responded to a new demand by making new kinds of craftwork for sale," Senungetuk said.

As an example he cited walrus tusk ivory carving, which is a market item that continues to this day.

"This activity is a small part of a large industry in Alaska that is not likely to fade away anytime soon," he said.

A third artform has taken shape in the last 25 years, according to Senungetuk.


"Tlingkit Hawk Mask" by Myron Wheeler

"This is through the introduction of formal study of art. The expanded way of seeing art enfranchises Alaska Native artists to be able to join the mainstream art world. Art expression, still drawn from various cultural backgrounds is freer, both in terms of concepts and media usage," he said.

He added that contemporary expressions may be a stark contrast to what many non-Natives and Outsiders think of in regard to what Native art is, or ought to be.

"A lot of people say we've got to preserve this or that. They want to put us in a jar. That's a stereotypical understanding of Alaska Native art. You can't preserve groups of people," Senungetuk said.

"We form our own opinion about what our art should be, not what dominant society tells us to make," he added.

Instead of comparing Native artworks to those done in the past, Senungetuk said he believes contemporary pieces should be judged on their own merit.


detail from "An Ocean Runs Through Us" by Clarissa Hudson

In doing so, it becomes possible to understand them as vital and energetic art forms that can be appreciated for their own individual beauty, as well as for their representation of time-honored traditions.

"Art expression is never static," Senungetuk said.

To him, contemporary works are not quaint examples of fading lifestyles; rather, they carry on centuries-old traditions. They reveal the evolution of the culture they represent, while still simultaneously expressing the individual touch of the artist.

"I think tradition dies when it quits transitioning," Senungetuk said.


"Yellow Stripe" by Larry Ahvakana

Some of this transition of blending the traditional with the modern can be seen in the materials used in numerous pieces in the show.

Many of the paintings, masks, basketry, beadwork, jewelry and mixed media works are made with, or incorporate, natural items.

There is skin, hide or hair from a variety of animals, such as Sonya Kelliher-Combs' piece titled "14 Red Seal Skin Secrets" and Umara (Dora) Buchea's piece titled "Umara's Bleached Mask" which utilized beaver, polar bear and ringed seal fur and caribou hide. Some of the material used in other pieces also came from wolf, sheep and moose, among other creatures.

There are also feathers from ravens, birds of prey and other avian species, such as Perry Eaton's piece titled "Messenger Bird."

Many pieces also include natural woods such as maple, birch, spruce or cedar, such as Jerry Laktonen's piece titled "Rites of Passage" and Myron Wheeler's "Tlingit Hawk Mask."

However, just as many Alaska Natives abandoned the use of traveling by dog sled in favor of snowmachines and largely switched from spear hunting to using rifles to bring down game, so, too, do may contemporary Native artists use commercial paints instead of natural earth pigments and imitation sinew in place of that harvested from wild animals.

"In this exhibition there is no restriction on materials used," Senungetuk said.

Some of the pieces include metal, plastic, glass and other more modern or synthetic materials. But even this is not that new since for centuries Alaska Natives traded with neighboring Native people to obtain materials not endemic to their particular region, and also because they frequently adopted the use of materials from Outsiders and those not native to their culture.


"Umara's Bleached Mask" by Umara (Dora) Buchea

Senungetuk said the various works in the exhibition depict a variety of expressions, experiences, thoughts and ideas of Alaska Natives.

Many pieces show the animals, land and people of Alaska as the artists know it. Senungetuk said that many show — to the truly sensitive eyes — political, sociological and spiritual messages, as well.

Examples can be seen in "Imprisonment by Self and State" and "The Hide Box as a State of Mind," both by Joe Senungetuk, and in the watercolor "Protecting Our Children" by Nancy Radtke.

"In my mind, artists express society, what's gone on in the past and what's going on around them today. Much of the artwork in the exhibition does this, but in ways that are complicated for some to figure out," he said.

Senungetuk said that, overall, he enjoyed his role as guest curator, despite some challenges in putting together a show such as this.

"It was a lot of work," he said, adding that tracking down artists whose work he wanted to include in the exhibition was one of the tougher tasks.

"Some of them are still living a subsistence way of life," Senungetuk said. For these people, hunting and fishing takes precedence over everything else, which complicated his task as curator.


detail from "Protecting Our Children" by Nancy Radtke

"For example, there was an artist from Shishmaref that does bone carvings. I really wanted some of his work, but he was too busy hunting seal to finish his art for the show," he said.

Senungetuk explained that this is true even for some of the artists who don't live off the land but still must support themselves first and create art second.

"Some are only artists after an eight-to-five job. Not many can be full-time artists because it's so hard to make a living of art. Only one in 1,000 can do it," he said.

Other artists were hard to track down because the are highly transient, Senungetuk said.

"Much of them were of the younger group that are mobile. They may move around a lot or go Outside for job opportunities, or to teach art at a university," he said.


detail from "I Love Alaska" by Alvin Amason

Despite the obstacles he had to overcome, Senungetuk said it was worth it in the end. The objects and images on exhibition are both strikingly elegant and profoundly though-provoking.

"It is a good little show that makes it clear that there is no turning back with new trends in the Arctic," he said.

More information on "Alaska 2005: Native Art Now" can be obtained by calling the visitors center at 283-1991.

The museum's hours after Memorial Day will be 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.

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