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Old, new worlds meet in Alaska Native artist's work

Trina Landlord
Photo courtesy ANAF

Benjamin Schleifman is the featured artist at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in downtown Anchorage through the end of May. His exhibition, titled "Tagging New Territory: Reimagining Tlingit art, From The Rainforest to the Concrete Jungle," signifies growing up in two worlds. Schleifman is Tlingit, from Teslin in the Yukon Territory and Juneau, as well as Jewish from Brooklyn, N.Y. 

Schleifman’s two cultural worlds merge in his art. Traditionally, Tlingit people marked their territory by carving in trees or rocks by streams to symbolize their land and water. Now, Schleifman “tags” -- writings or drawings scribbled, scratched or sprayed illicitly on some surface in a public place -- on canvas. He said tagging in New York or Los Angeles is comparable to marking places in the manner his ancestors did in Southeast Alaska.

Tlingit art is complex, mathematical and precise, and Schleifman succeeds in simplifying it.

“Without being Tlingit,” he says, “I wouldn’t do what I do today. Works of the past inspire me for the future, whether it is from my ancestors or into the next five minutes.”

As a youngster, Schleifman's uncle would make the child sit and watch him carve. At age 5, Schleifman began carving himself. He apprenticed in Carnation, Wash., with his uncle, the late Robert James Schoppert, considered one of the most prodigious and influential Alaska Native artists. He has been called an innovator that made traditional and contemporary Alaska Native works, often pushing the boundaries of what was considered "traditional" Northwest Coast art.

Schleifman later apprenticed with Kenny Jackson in Teslin. He worked on a traditional canoe with Doug Chilton for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and has worked on projects with Israel Shortridge at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. He said he had no choice except to become a carver.

Schleifman grew up around the world in New York, London, Edinburgh and Paris, consistently exposed to museums.

“It was always an adventure,” he says.

He works in metals like copper, silver and cast iron as well as wood and has made masks, daggers, drums, rattles, jewelry and paintings. Benjamin says his creative expression shows his multiple personalities. Spray paint is for fun, while wood is for both his playful and his serious sides.

Trina Landlord is executive director for the Alaska Native Arts Foundation. She can be reached at trina(at)alaskanativearts.org.