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"Wear Art, Thou?" celebrates Alaska Native fashion, culture

Trina Landlord

The Alaska Native Heritage Month organization and the Alaska Native Arts Foundation are partnering to host an exciting cultural event in November. The Alaska Native Visionary Awards and “Wear Art, Thou?” fashion show will be showcased during Alaska Native Heritage Month.

The Alaska Native Visionary Awards recognize individuals perpetuating and preserving Alaska Native cultures in a unique way. Past honorees come from a variety of backgrounds, including literary, visual and performance artists, culture bearers, videographers and musicians.

Inspired by the Renaissance period, the “Wear Art, Thou?” fashion show features an indigenous movement of Alaska Native designers bridging traditional techniques to crafting contemporary wearable art. The Renaissance period was a cultural revival from the 14th to 17th centuries marking the transition from medieval to modern times.

Applying this to Alaska Native cultures today, the Indigenous Renaissance brings renewed interests in Alaska Native culture to urban and rural Alaska. Its influence affects Alaska Native literature, philosophy, art, politics, science, religion and other aspects of intellectual inquiry.

Traditionally, Alaska Native clothing was valued for its functionality. Pieces were utilitarian, although decorated in ways that conveyed images of spiritual or physical activity and that were critical to cultural identity. For example, “qupaq” in Inupiat culture was the detailed trim on parkas that held meaning that one could use to determine if an individual was friend, foe or family. Qupaq had to do with identity, much like a family crest.

Traditional regalia were also used for ceremonial purposes. These included masks, woven clothing, hats, parkas and dance fans, to name a few. In some areas of Alaska, contrasting colors of animal skins were used in a kind of patchwork style to make decorative effects along joint marks, which were thought to be the location of souls.

Clothing was made for the seasons, like rainproof outerwear sewn from membranes of the intestines of seals or animal skins valued for their warmth and durability. The clothing and other pieces became souvenirs for the whalers and explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

For the “Wear Art, Thou?” fashion show, Alaska Native designers will create wearable art inspired from medieval times, integrating subsistence-harvested materials and traditional techniques into contemporary garments.

Invited designers include: Christine Alowa (St. Lawrence Island Yupik), Joel Isaak (Athabascan), Ricky Tagaban (Tlingit), Drew Michael (Inupiat/Yup'ik) and Elizabeth Ellis (Alutiiq), to name a few. They are designing cutting-edge clothing, jewelry, accessories and footwear.

When people ask me what to expect at the event, I tell them medievally-inspired hair and makeup, along with corsets and knickers meeting polar bear fur and sealskin.

Accompanying the show will be Mozart, chamber and baroque music integrated with indigenous Inuit beats from Chevak circa 1923 in Western Alaska, to hip-hop beats by RiverFlowz.

Think "Amadeus meets rural and urban Alaska Natives.”

The “Wear Art, Thou?” title is a play on a famous line from Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet,” first performed in 1592 -- "O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” -- in which the two title characters’ love is impossible because of their family names.

In the play, Juliet asks Romeo to change his allegiance, or else she will change hers. If you indigenize that concept to Alaska Native cultures, think about the interconnectedness of walking in two worlds, combining traditional and Western worldviews. It is no longer a lament of unbridgeable difference. We as Alaska Natives don’t deny either side of our identities, we now get to meld them.

To nominate Alaska Native Visionaries, visit the Alaska Native Heritage Month website. To purchase individual tickets or tables for the event, visit the Alaska Native Arts Foundation.

Trina Landlord is the Executive Director of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation. She can be reached at trina(at)alaskanativearts.org