It’s been noted that history is moving faster, that time is compressing and accelerating at unprecedented rates. We laugh at monstrous phones and outdated concepts of network communication (anyone watched The Matrix recently?), and it’s difficult for even grounded millennials to fathom that they have living grandparents who were born in the 1920s.
European movement towards the “modern era” via science, industry, and violence, began hundreds of years ago, but the border between the modern and the traditional remains slim and highly contested. This thin line is the territory of the Craft and Folk Art Museum‘s current exhibition This Is Not A Silent Movie.
The show features four contemporary Alaska native artists, none of whom have prior exhibited in Los Angeles. They are: Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Nicholas Galanin, Da-ka-xeen Mehner, and Susie Silook. The show is a cross-section of a broad range of mediums and styles, but as CAFAM Director Suzanne Isken explains, each artist’s work is “rooted in a lifelong immersion in the craft traditions of their respective cultures, while also being deeply relevant to directions in contemporary art.”
The work of Nicholas Galanin perhaps engages most directly with cultural appropriation and categorization, and his pieces are infused with serious humor and raw anger. Princess Leia is juxtaposed with a young Hopi woman in Things are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter. A wooden carving that turns out to be a sex toy plays with literalness and taboo (I Looooove Your Culture!). The videos below comprise Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan (We will again open this container of wisdom that has been left in our care). Here, a break dancer dances to traditional Tlingit music, while a Tlingit dancer moves to electronic beats.
Susie Silook is one of the first female carvers to gain critical acclaim in the male-dominated field, and her works serve to “visualize and verbalize the silence surrounding the sexual abuse of Native women.” Instead of carving traditional animal forms, as male carvers generally do, Silook’s sculptural works depict female figures richly ornamented with a range of organic materials.
The exhibition’s title is appropriate in a few ways. Curator Julie Decker explains that it comes from the words of Sherman Alexie, a writer and filmmaker whose work continually strives to subvert native stereotypes. However, as an anthropologist with a leaning towards film (or vice versa), the exhibition recalls something else. Robert Flaherty’s 1922 sensation Nanook of the North is known as the grandfather of the modern documentary. It follows an Inuit Eskimo family living in the Arctic Circle, and while Flaherty allegedly collaborated on the film with his subjects, he is also known to have requested that they recreate “traditional” aspects of their nomadic lifestyle, such as hunting techniques – hide the guns! Nanook of the North is a silent film.
This Is Not A Silent Movie is especially relevant in Los Angeles, a metropolis with a Tongva native heritage and a remarkably short “Western” history. LA continues to be a studio prolific in its output of artworks and cultural forms that combine Native pasts, histories of conquest, and contemporary urban life. That CAFAM would spark a dialogue with Alaska Native artists is really less surprising than it may seem at first glance. The show is quietly forceful, paying respects to a past that shouldn’t be treated as gone and questioning the possibilities of redefining Native, now.
At top, Nicholas Galanin’s Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter.