Alaska Native Art: Stories of Healing Through Transformation
Five Oaks Museum Community Gallery, November -December 2021
Curated by Renea Perry, citizen of Tlingit Haida Nation/Inupiaq/N.Euro & PCC instructor
Alaska Native Nations make up 230 of the 574 federally recognized tribal nations of the “US”, with 12 distinct Alaska Native language regions, each with diverse cultural practices. Alaska Native people live the world over with rich intersections of identity and place. For us, there is no diaspora, we are Alaska Native no matter where we are “being”.
My intention is to create a conversation space that highlights Alaska Native ways of being and knowing through stories of transformation, and connections to land and culture. The four artists of this exhibition, Yupik Sculptor Terresa White, Tlingit Artist James Johnson, Inuit Inupiaq Artist Holly Nordlum, and Yupik Inupiaq Artist Drew Michael bridge contemporary and traditional Alaska Native art and storymaking through the use of media, spatial location and, physical and spiritual manifestation. This exhibition will also connect to an upcoming Introduction to Alaska Native Studies class at Portland Community College in Winter of 2022–the first class of its kind in Native Studies curricula in regional academic institutions outside of Alaska.
Click on each picture to see them full size!
Tlingit Armor – Shark Clan Crest
Elk hide, sinew; 2020.
“Traditionally, in Tlingit culture every young man was raised to become a warrior. At age 7, young boys left their mother and father, and were raised by their uncle–their mother’s brother who is of the same clan. Their teachings were strict: strengthening mind and body to survive in Alaska. Only the most proven young men would receive the honor of wearing the Armor during battle. The Tlingit would trade for Elk hide from Oregon to construct their light weight armor. Elk hide was more dense than deer, and offered more protection. This piece is traditionally made, carrying forward the tradition of Tlingit up-bringing and warfare every Tlingit man was taught from an early age.”
James Johnson is an Award Winning Tlingit Artist and Carver, born and raised in Juneau, AK. He belongs to the Tlingit Ch’áak’ Dakl’aweidi Clan (Eagle Killerwhale). James’s great great grandfather was Chief Gusht’eiheen (“Spray off the Dorsal Fin”) of the Dakl’aweidi of the Xutsnoowú Kwáan (Angoon, Alaska). His great grandfather was Chief Jimmy Johnson, and his grandfather was Chief Peter Johnson. Whom he is named after – James Peter Johnson. James’s strong ancestral history led him to purse the Tlingit art form. His late father, Franklin Johnson, first encouraged him to begin carving. James has now dedicated his life to perpetuating the Tlingit art form, honoring his ancestors thru his work.
Seal Vision: Shared Spirit
Collaboration with Don Johnston and Mark Tetpon
Bronze, walrus ivory, baleen, wood, steel; 2020.
“Our families originate in the Far North. We three collaborating artists are Aleut, Inupiaq, and Yup’ik. We share a belief in our interdependence and interrelationship between human and non-human persons such as seals. We share Far North stories of the masked dancer transforming into seal, of the first seal springing to life from the severed fingers of Sea Woman, of the young boy who is sent to live in the underwater home of seals to learn their ways and so become a great hunter. Our people have long histories and strong relationships to seal people. We are told that seals know the ways of humans, are sensitive to our thoughts and actions, and can hear our words. Caution, care, and respect in the treatment of seals and of other human and non-human people is central to our understanding of living a good life.”
Dependent Arising: Owl & Lemming
“Dependent Arising: Owl and Lemming celebrates the interdependence of all beings and honors those upon whose backs we all ride to survive. The lemming is scaled larger than the owl to show its equal importance in their interrelationship. The traditional Yup’ik hand has in its center an eye of awareness. The eye represents the cyclical emergence of beings to this realm. We are all related and there is no independent existence.”
“Antidote addresses climate change and lifts up interconnection as an antidote to environmental destruction. When humans become mindful of the nature of reality, which is interconnection, when we respect and honor our relationships with water, land, and the non-human people with whom we share this planet, we can begin to heal our minds and change our behaviors. This is our hope for survival and our children’s and their children’s survival.”
Terresa White is Yup’ik Eskimo and French Canadian. The faces of her masks and the gestures of her figures emerge from memories—those passed down by her ancestors and her own. They are shadowy and she senses them dimly until they appear recognizable at last in her sculptures. She is inspired by Yup’ik stories of transformation and Yup’ik understandings of the interrelationship and spirit of all beings… human and animal people, water and sky people, river, sea, and rock, and beings unseen. Her work is contemporary, exploring traditional themes and their interplay, confluence and divergence, with her urban life in the Pacific Northwest. Her artistic process is healing medicine, transforming some suffering of displacement and loss into connection and opportunity. Terresa’s work is found in galleries, in private collections, in the Portland Art Museum permanent collection, in the public art collections of the Regional Arts and Culture Council, and in the public art collection of the City of Lake Oswego. She hopes that her sculptures remind viewers of their inseparable connection to all, their resilient animal bodies, and their inborn ability to greet the sweet moments in life with full guiltless pleasure and the dark moments with courage and transformation.
Holly Mititquq Nordlum
Holly Mititquq Nordlum received a Bachelor of Fine Art Degree in Graphic Design and Photography from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Nordlum was named a Time Warner Fellow with the Sundance Film Festival, and received an Art Matters grant, and a Humanities Forum grant for her work documenting the Tupik Mi Project (traditional Inuit tattooing) – which was also featured in the New York Times Lifestyles Section Summer 2018, a Rasmuson Individual Artist Award, and was named to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of The American Indian’s Artist Leadership Program.
Holly is an artist, a graphic designer, public art contractor, traditional Inuit tattooer and a hopeful social justice insister. Using many mediums: printmaking, painting, filmmaking, and tattooing to express her ideas about life and issues of native people in today’s world. She says, “Inuit culture and my Ancestors guide my work but I am most inspired by our lives today and the way we live in two worlds, one old and the modern urban life. “
Basswood, Myrtle wood, vintage pony hide, poly fabric, wire, beads, feathers, caribou hair, acrylic, copper wire, metal tacks, rabbit fur, air system ball joints, nails, screws, and Oak wood; 2020.
“In June, 2020 During my time in isolation I had feelings of anxiety and fear. Portland became a war zone of police brutality against the people standing up in solidarity for humanity and the rights of all.
I was looking for some relief in all of this. Then a series of four moths appeared throughout a day. One was on the lock to my studio door, another crawled up my back and I spotted it in a mirror, one was under a work table top, and another came out of some boxes of supplies. That particular moth was a Large Yellow Underwig, a species of owlet moths.
In Maine a butterfly moth came to a garden and showed its beauty. In Portland, Oregon on our deck a plain plume moth came to us and hung out for many days.
Moths have been a large part of this season in my life and I felt it was time to create something to honor the quiet healer.
This mask was designed after the Brown Angle Shades Moth, a species of owlet moths. I named the piece Brown Angel to pay tribute to the BLM and POC movements and to share something of beauty that has given me some relief.
The wings move along the hoop track and give the moth life.”
Wood, ash, feathers, brass metal, French handmade nails, bone, stain, magnets, and oil paints; 2020.
“Life’s Eye is a being who looks out into the world and captures the eye of a person and shares the connections to the universe and our lives in spiral. As we live things come back through and our minds are twisted. Not knowing if we are living a dream or reality, maybe both. Looking at the center and connecting to the energy in and outside ourselves and sharing this truth. Becoming whole.
As the mask wearer looks up the mouth opens to give breath and voice to this cosmic spirit.”
Drew Michael (Yup’ik and Inupiaq) was born in Bethel, Alaska. He and his twin brother grew up in Eagle River, Alaska.
Drew started learning carving at age 13, learning from archeologist Bob Shaw, printmaker Joe Senungetuk, and contemporary Athabascan mask-maker, Kathleen Carlo. As Drew practiced his craft and developed his own style, he also studied the craftsmanship of works by master carvers and spent many hours comparing others’ works with his own designs and process, searching for his own niche. He applied research to his carvings, using trial & error to grow his work into what it is today.
Drew focuses on how masks were originally used by Yup’ik people, for healing and telling stories of things unseen. Drew’s work incorporates healing practices of the Yup’ik people and religious icons of European Christianity. The artist hopes to encourage people to find healing in ways that bring about balance in much the same way he has used these practices to find balance in his own life.