Native Alaska contemporary artists explore issues of identity

2014-05-08T13:27:00Z 2014-09-02T16:06:40Z Native Alaska contemporary artists explore issues of identity

By MARTIN KIDSTON of the Missoulian

If the walrus skin, seal whiskers and whale bone don’t have a story to tell in their own innate right, then the artistic spin placed on the indigenous items by a handful of Alaskan Native artists certainly do.

From the “Mighty Elder” carved by Susie Silook to the mixed media of Da-ka-xeen Mehner, the new exhibit at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture begs questions of race, identity and the power of place.

“It’s great work by some artists we don’t usually get access to,” Brandon Reintjes, curator of art at MMAC, said last week during a gallery tour. “It’s an opportunity for us to put the highest quality contemporary work in front of students and see how they bounce off it.”

Those University of Montana students included Amanda Holloway, Katie Facklam and Lea Christiansen, who toured the new exhibit and pondered its Native reflections.

The students are enrolled in assistant professor Jennifer Combe’s art education class in the School of Art. The new exhibit – unique in origin and design – prompted them to explore its application to Montana’s own Indian Education for All program.

“We’re required to do Indian Ed for All in our curriculums,” said Facklam. “This helps us find different ways to thread that into our lesson plans and make sure it’s followed.”

With the students listening in, Reintjes discussed the challenges of installing the new exhibit, which covers video, large spear-like sculptures, live performances and three-dimension renderings of strange and missive shapes.

To an untrained eye, the pieces are amusing, if not outright curious. With a little insight and interpretation, however, they come to life and a deeper understanding emerges, including Sonya Kelliher-Combs’ use of skin, hair and acrylic polymer in her line of work.

“It’s interesting that you have an artist committed to using one form and using that form in a variety of ways,” Reintjes explained. “She grew up in a subsistence community in Alaska, where they made a lot of the objects they used. That practice comes through in her art making.”

Through their work, the artists are seeking new ways to speak on tradition while testing the term “Native art.” Their mixed-race identities are explored in several pieces, including a side-by-side portrait of Princess Leia interwoven with a Native woman bearing a traditional hair style.

The piece is dubbed “Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter.”

“You can see how he enjoys the contrasting cultures,” Reintjes said of the artist, Nicholas Galanin. “There are some things they’re outright firm about. They’re firm about their identity.”

The exhibit landed at UM last week – one of just three stops outside of Alaska, including the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibits travels are funded by the Western States Art Federation.

“It’s a pretty prestigious group,” Reintjes said. “To be included in their company is pretty gratifying.”

“This is Not a Silent Movie: Four Contemporary Alaska Native Artists,” will be on display at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s Paxon and Meloy galleries in the PAR/TV Building at the University of Montana through July 5. The gallery is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday from noon to 3 p.m., and Thursday and Friday from noon to 6 p.m.

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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