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Alaska Life

In ‘Extra Tough' exhibit, Anchorage Museum highlights resiliency and strength of women in the North

A "Women in History: #ExtraToughWomenAK" installation gives viewers the opportunity to learn more about historic Alaska women as part of the "Extra Tough: Women of the North" exhibit at the Anchorage Museum. Photographed on Nov. 10, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Nazi-fighting, reindeer-herding, radio-reporting women are front and center at the Anchorage Museum’s newest exhibit, “Extra Tough: Women of the North.” The show features artworks from female artists and profiles of women in Alaska’s past and present — including notable figures like Bettye Davis and Elizabeth Peratrovich.

“Women of the North” takes up the entire third floor of the museum and features themes surrounding women and society, women and place and women and work. The majority of the exhibit features artwork tied to Alaska, as well as artists from countries including Canada, Iceland, Finland and Russia.

Angelica Barfield-Miner, who chose to celebrate her 11th birthday at the Anchorage Museum, sits on a bench and watches Marja Helander's 'Birds in the Earth' as it is projected onto a wall as part of the 'Extra Tough: Women of the North' exhibit at the Anchorage Museum in Downtown Anchorage on Nov. 12, 2020. Angelica is an avid painter and enjoys art. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

When it came to profiling real Alaska women, "we were confronted with many challenges as you might expect trying to research the topic,” Anchorage Museum chief curator Francesca DuBrock said. “In particular, there haven’t been any really comprehensive or collective histories of women in the state; there are great gaps in omission and archives.”

Initially, all of the women the museum chose to profile were deceased, which presented its own set of obstacles. (The project was later expanded to include living Alaskans as well.)

“Sometimes we would find a photo in our archive that was really intriguing and the person seems very important, just based on the pose and context, and we could find no information,” DuBrock said. “Sometimes we’d find a photo and be able to find an obituary or something. Some people were really famous and we knew about them already, like Thelma Buckholdt, but we really didn’t have photos in our archive.”

The display features profiles on Alaska Native women, including Anfesia Shapsnikoff, a master Aleut weaver who traveled to communities across the state to teach basketry techniques, and Changunak Antisarlook Andrewuk, an Iñupiaq woman who alongside her husband became the first Alaska Native owner of a private reindeer herd. She eventually became one of the wealthiest women in the state by selling meat to Army men during Nome’s gold rush.

Angelica Barfield-Miner, who chose to celebrate her 11th birthday at the Anchorage Museum, walks around installations in the 'Extra Tough: Women of the North' exhibit at the Anchorage Museum with her mom, Heather Barfield, in Downtown Anchorage on Nov. 12, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Also featured is Nazi fighter Roxolana Pomeroy; Black businesswoman Zula Swanson; Della Keats, who helped found the Tribal Doctor Program; Alaska’s first Black business owner Bessie Couture; and Bettye Davis, the first Black woman elected to the Alaska House of Representatives and the Senate.

“The stories and contributions of women of color and immigrant women — particularly Black women — are really not well documented in the archive,” DuBrock said.

DuBrock says community members and organizations have been instrumental in helping identify women in photos, often providing a broader picture of the lives they lived. Since March, the museum has been profiling a woman weekly on social media and will continue to do so through the course of the exhibit.

“Our first woman we profiled, she was one that we found a photo of — the only reference we could find to her was her obituary, her name is Agnes Harrison,” DuBrock said. “She was really a wonderful, courageous woman. When we posted it, someone commented, ‘That’s my great aunt Aggie!’”

An Athabascan baby belt, bottom, and metal sculptures representing traditional dress of Alaska Native women, right, on display in ’Extra Tough: Women of the North, ’ an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum. Photographed on Nov. 10, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
Marja Helander's ’Birds in the Earth ’ is projected onto a wall at the Anchorage Museum as part of the ’Extra Tough: Women of the North ’ exhibit. Photographed on Nov. 10, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
Signs and statistics show viewers the gender pay gap in front of another installation on ’Women & Work. ’ Photographed on Nov. 10, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

One part of the exhibit that DuBrock calls “affirmation chair” is an immersive experience where people can sit under parabolic speakers and listen messages from 50 people. The messages could include anything from words of wisdom to personal mantras. DuBrock says those recordings will eventually go online as well.

Alaskans are encouraged to share their own images and stories on Instagram and Facebook with the hashtag #ExtraToughWomenAK, which will be added to an online project curated by the museum.

“Extra Tough: Women of the North” will be on view through Sept. 6, 2021. Note: Due to COVID-19, Anchorage Museum hours for November remain 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

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‘Extra Tough’ events

All events will be held online. For more information or to register, go to anchoragemuseum.org.

Thursday, Nov. 12

Artist Spotlight: Holly Nordlum and Sarah Whalen Lunn — Two artists featured in the museum’s newest exhibition will lead a Q&A discussion, exploring their own practices and issues affecting women in the North. Free. 4 p.m.

Friday, Nov. 13

Extra Tough Beers: A Panel Discussion with Female Brewers of Alaska — Join this discussion led by Sarah Perez featuring Alaska’s female brewers who will discuss their experiences influencing the craft brew industry. Free. 6:30 p.m.

Monday, Nov. 16

A Virtual Conversation with Ernestine Saankaláxt Hayes — Join Alaska Writer Laureate Ernestine Saankaláxt Hayes, author of “Blonde Indian” and “The Tao of Raven,” for a conversation facilitated by Penny Gage. Free. Noon.

Tuesday, Nov. 17

Being a Woman of Color in Alaska — A diverse group of women of color will lead a discussion about their experiences living in Alaska, moderated by YWCA Alaska CEO Theresa Lyons. Free. Noon.

Wednesday, Nov. 18

Artist Spotlight: Ash Adams — Photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Ash Adams will lead a Q&A discussion on her workflow and experiences as a working mother in Alaska. Free. 4 p.m.

Thursday, Nov. 19

Women Leading Alaska — Hear from Alaska’s female leaders about their keys to success within the state’s nonprofit organizations, businesses and government entities. Panelists include Morgan Christen of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Dana Fabe of the Alaska Supreme Court, Barbara Hood, Alaska state Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, Jewel Jones and Vicki Otte of CIRI. Free. Noon.

Friday, Nov. 20

Artist Spotlight: Jade Ariah, Debbie Even and Amy Meissner — This discussion will highlight textile-based practice and intergenerational collaboration, featuring artists Jade Ariah, Debbie Even and Amy Meissner, whose work is featured in the museum’s exhibition. Free. 5 p.m.

Friday, Dec. 4

Artist Spotlight: Merritt Johnson and Tsēmā Igharas — Join interdisciplinary artists Merritt Johnson and Tsēmā Igharas as they discuss their featured mediums, including sewing, casting, weaving, beading, painting, carving and more. Free. 6:30 p.m.

[Correction: Details about the “affirmation chair” in this story have been corrected to reflect that listeners do not use headsets. Also, a previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Agnes “Aggie” Harrison.]

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