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Inupiaq artist Allison Warden lives her art for 2-month installation piece at Anchorage Museum

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published November 23, 2016

"Most artists put up the art and go home," Inupiaq artist/performer/author Allison Warden noted. "But I've been one of the art pieces in the space for going on two months."

Warden's installation/performance piece "Unipkaagusiksuguvik," on the fourth floor of the Anchorage Museum, opened Oct. 7. It required her to be on site most of the time the museum was open, 380 hours all told, with only Mondays off. You couldn't blame her if she seemed a little tired as she started the countdown to the final week on Tuesday.

"Unipkaagusiksuguvik" is an alternative version of the Inupiat ceremonial/community house, a "qargi." One enters through a hall lined with dial telephones on which one hears Inupiat women speaking. There are prints of Warden's work on the far wall and Alaska Native items from the museum's collection on display. Video of Native dancing and historical footage of village life are shown. Benches line both sides of the gallery, with space below to store your shoes. One bench is loaded with blankets and pillows. At the far end is a stage.

In this space Warden has been reading, performing, conversing and presiding over events during the course of the show. She's had a "village Halloween party," a dance party, an Inupiat church service, craft workshops, readings, rehearsals and performances of a traditional drumming and dancing group. "I even got a traditional tattoo in the course of the show," she said.

"The funniest part was my version of a whaling captain's log," she said. She got the idea after visiting a whaling museum in the Lower 48 and reading the logs of mariner's encounters with Alaska Natives in the 1800s, sometimes using language like, "Met with 20 savages."

In Warden's version, she has added a different panel recording each day's activities on the wall opposite the telephones, a mix of words and images. In her case, she uses "patrons" to describe the people she encounters.

Warden was born in Fairbanks Dec. 27, 1972, to John Warden, originally from Missouri, and Mary Ann Warden, who grew up in Kaktovik and whose birth family hails from Barrow. Mary Ann — now the Rev. Mary Ann Warden — studied for and eventually received a Master of Divinity degree from the University of Dubuque, Iowa, while Allison was growing up.

Warden said she went to five high schools and three elementary schools in places from the High Arctic to the Great Plains.

"I'd always been into theater and music," she said. But her interest in performance art took a turn when she worked at Ilisagvik College in Barrow. The job included encouraging students to think about what they wanted to achieve and how they might attain it by going to college.

"After a few years of that I decided I should do it for myself," she said.

Warden became interested in audio engineering, certification for which would eventually take her to New York. But in the course of that she found herself researching different art forms and mediums. "Performance art and installation stood out for me," she said.

Ten years ago she moved to Anchorage. Her first performance art pieces took place at the now-defunct MTS Gallery in Mountain View. Her rap persona, Aku-Matu, debuted at Out North where her 2008 piece "Ode to the Polar Bear" debuted.

"It sort of put me on the cultural map," she said. She expanded it into a theater piece, "Calling All Polar Bears," which premiered at the Pangea World Theatre in Minneapolis.

Other work included a piece about Native people bracing for tourist season, "Wait, let me put on my armor," for which she employed performers dressed as tourists and planted in the audience, and "Virtual Subsistence," an immersive, interdisciplinary show co-curated with artist Gretchen Sagan and poet Joan Kane.

"That one really got me excited about the possibilities of performance art," she said. She applied for a major grant but didn't get it, though she was grateful for the exercise of explaining her ideas in an ordered format. She mentioned it to Anchorage Museum director Julie Decker, who invited her to present "Unipkaagusiksuguvik" in the Chugach Gallery. The show was made possible by a grant from the national Art Matters group and a fellowship from the Rasmuson Foundation.

Warden immediately knew she wanted to use the gallery to create a kind of ceremonial "sacred" space. "Time is like a circle," she said, referring to legends that speak of a point when people will return to the connectedness with the natural world they experienced at the beginning of things. She used her arms to describe a hula-hoop shape with a gap at the top. On one side, she said, was "the hyper-hyper-future," the other was "the super-super ancient," the "birthplace of legends."

"This room exists between that gap," she said.

Signage near the elevator describes Warden's modern qargi as "a place to decolonize your spirit." When interviewed, she expanded on that, calling it "a place for conversation, for taking a nap, to unwind, reflect, relax, get to know other people and get the vibe of the ancestors being around. I want to provide a space for people to be human."

In this form of art, she explained, the audience, like the artist, is part of the medium, "as much a part of the art as is the art on the walls. They're what I'm painting with, sculpting, shaping."

But, she acknowledged, the idea of performance art is still new to many Alaskans. "They're not sure what to expect or how to engage with it," she said.

Nonetheless, the experience has whetted her appetite to do more along these lines. "Some of the elements, like the Talk Show," Tuesday and Thursday installments where she interviews guests who chat about whatever's on their minds, "have been really popular. It will continue as part of the programming at the museum," she said.

She'd like to take "Unipkaagusiksuguvik" to other venues. "I want to move it and do it again," she said. "Maybe in Seattle or somewhere else. It's really nice to come to the end of it, two months, six days a week, and be like, 'Let's do it again!'

"But next time I'm going to build in one more day off."

"UNIPKAAGUSIKSUGUVIK, THE PLACE OF THE FUTURE/ANCIENT" will close on Nov. 27 at the Anchorage Museum. The final performance of traditional dance will be 3-4 p.m. Friday. Nov. 25-27 are free days at the museum.

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