Sitka artist challenges conceptions of modern aesthetics and Native identity

Anchorage Daily NewsJune 9, 2012 

A piece of art by Nicholas Galanin invariably makes you took twice. With that second glance, the artist-viewer connection really begins.

Take his photograph of an Alaska liquor store at night. The neon signs for Miller, Molson, Alaskan Brewing and Budweiser glow in the windows, beckoning lights in an image otherwise too dark to make out the shape of the building. A formal composition in bright colors on a black background, perhaps. Or a mood picture. Maybe part of a documentary series.

It takes a moment before one sees the red, white and blue sign low in the window next to a Corona advertisement, reading:


Such messages are said to have been posted on Alaska businesses prior to passage of the territory's civil rights law in 1945. Seeing the words repeated in a contemporary context, in the incongruous medium of blazing neon, transforms the ordinary photo into an image that somehow contains the essence of its subject -- like an icon -- a multi-layered commentary on history, prejudice and stereotyping, an unsettling collision of perception and reality.

(Lest there be any confusion, the store did not place the sign. Galanin himself had the sign made and put it in different locations for a series of related photos.)

Incongruity charges the Sitka artist's sculptural, photographic and performance work, work that has put him in the top ranks of emerging American cutting edge artists, with a growing national and international reputation. Of Tlingit, Aleut and non-Native heritage, Galanin often works on themes that raise questions of culture, race and art with a lively sense of ambiguity.

A good example is his video "Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan," featured in "True North," the current exhibit of contemporary art from high latitudes at the Anchorage Museum. Galanin has filmed Tlingit dancer Dan Littlefield in a Raven's-tail blanket, headpiece and full regalia, performing to an edgy, digital, electro-techno track -- followed by break-dancer David Elsewhere doing his rubbery moves to the strains of the Tlingit song for which the video is titled.

"Inert," his installation of the front end of a wolf trying to rise from his flattened, rug back end, has been so widely disseminated on the Internet that it may be his best-known effort.

But the work that put him on the map in the art world involves portraits made from books.

Galanin said he was reading an anthropology text about the Tlingit and reflected on "the irony of an oral culture contained in books." The thought emerged as a series titled "What Have We Become," for which he had his own face read by a 3-D laser scanner and then replicated in hundreds of pages of a book.

"I tried several ways of cutting the paper, but it turned out that the best way to cut was by hand," he said. "I hate cutting paper."

The series featured various human images "carved" into anthropology books and a totemic Raven carved into a Bible. "Raven is the creator in Tlingit stories, so there's a connection," he said.

The series drew widespread attention. The organizers of 2011 Book Week in Amsterdam commissioned him to cut a portrait of popular Persian-born Dutch author Kader Abdolah into a book. Then they used other artists to replicate the process for other authors and spread the images all over town to promote the event.

"They blatantly took my idea and didn't even talk to me about it," he said. "So I took their work and included it in my portfolio. What else could you do?"


Born in Sitka in 1979, Galanin headed off to college as soon as he graduated from high school there. For almost 10 years he pursued his art education far and wide, including stints in New Zealand and London. He came by his talent naturally; his father and uncle were both carvers and carving "was my first go at making art," he said.

He became frustrated while working on jewelry in London. A set of rings that were also tambourines were the one idea that seemed to ignite his imagination.

"I began to realize that my way of understanding the world through creativity involved letting go of traditional creativity and going with creativity in general, creativity without preconceptions," he said.

It all led to a reinvestigation of Native and global aesthetics. Galanin's vision crosses established boundaries with ease and is often amusing in a thought-provoking way. As a reviewer for the Toronto Globe and Mail put it, "Galanin's skillful exploration of new possibilities between cultures is as undeniably playful as it is testing."

His "Curtis Legacy" series is a lurid riposte to the classic portraits of Native Americans taken by photographer Edward Curtis in the decades around 1900, including some noteworthy images from Alaska. Ethnologists have found the pictures to be an invaluable resource and descendents of the subjects often proudly display the splendid pictures of their relatives; but others decry the photos' romanticism and "vanishing race" nostalgia and how some have been copied by Hollywood and popular culture in a tacky way.

Galanin insinuates Curtis' old-fashioned sepia, in-studio look. But his subjects are nude women wearing replicas of Northwest Indian masks made by non-Natives.

He revisits Curtis in a newer series, "Things Are Looking Native, Native's Looking Whiter," which opened in Homer's Bunnell Street Gallery in February of this year. It includes an eerie split-image composite of one of Curtis's models and actress Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in "Star Wars."

For his "Imaginary Indian" series (also represented at the "True North" show), he camouflages Indian art and artifacts against a backdrop of antique wallpaper. Here he revisits the non-Native makers of "Alaska Native" curios.

"There's an economy of culture," he said. "Indonesians can make these wonderful replicas for pennies. In the wall paper series I used slip casts of Indonesian masks." One was a replica of a mask by famed Canadian jeweler and master carver Dempsey Bob. "I bought it at a tourist shop in Sitka," Galanin said.

Galanin's own gallery is located near the bridge in Sitka. Guitars share space with visual art. Among other things, the tambourine rings made him realize how important music is to him. He plays and performs as "Silver Jackson" and has his "own little record label." He hosts the eclectic Home Skillet outdoor music festival in Sitka and does hip-hop under the name "Indian Nick."

"Yes, I rap, too," he notes.

It's hard to imagine how he packs it all in, especially while raising three children, ages 3-6. Last week he was on panels at Celebration in Juneau. Later this month he will return to Anchorage for workshops at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. In July he has an exhibition in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Home Skillet Fest (July 13-14). He's weighing a guest professorship in Victoria, B.C. and has been working with the Ethnology Museum in Berlin.

"They're trying to redefine themselves," he said. "Museums are important, but Europe is pretty old school."

That must change for institutions to remain relevant, he said. "It's ridiculous to maintain only historical objects when there is so much going on right now."

True North Work by Nicholas Galanin and other artists re-interpreting life in northern regions, will be on display through Sept. 9 at the Anchorage Museum.

NICHOLAS GALANIN workshops will take place June 25-30 at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Participants have been chosen, but visitors to the center are welcome to observe.

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