On June 25, an exhibit of work by 29 leading Alaska Native artists will open in the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum in France. "D'une culture a l'autre" — "From One Culture to Another" — will mark the first showing of a collection of contemporary Alaska Native art in Europe, said Kodiak artist Perry Eaton, who played a major role in organizing the event.
"Individual pieces have been shown before and there have been shows by particular artists, but not a whole show of modern work by Alaska Natives as a genre of art," he said.
The word "show" is used for convenience, even though it implies a temporary display. The intent of "From One Culture to Another" is to create a permanent collection of Alaska Native art presented by Alaskans as a gift to the people of France.
Eaton has previously exhibited in Europe, including in Paris. He became interested in the Boulogne museum, housed in a medieval fortress, because it contains Alutiiq objects collected by an adventuring scholar, Alphone Pinart, in the 1870s. A generation after Pinart's visit to the Kodiak region, traditional art forms pretty much died out in the region. As a result, the Pinart collection is one of the few major repositories of Alutiiq material in the world.
It was the Boulogne museum that loaned 34 Alutiiq masks to Alaska museums for the "Giinaquq" exhibit in 2008. As a way of thanking the people of Boulogne, the Koniag Native Corporation gave the museums paddles by Alutiiq artist Jerry Laktonen and Eaton presented them with a mask.
But then he found that the items were not included in the museum's art collection. When he asked why, he was told that in France one does not place art and artifacts in the same exhibit.
"The French sort of had this idea that Alaska Native culture died on contact," Eaton said. He found that odd considering the impact of indigenous art on the surrealists, whose creations are counted among France's national treasures.
He protested that there were, in fact, a number of Alaska Natives doing work that merged modern and traditional art. "You need to have an exhibit of contemporary Alaska art," he said. "They told me, 'No! It cannot be done.'
"That was like waving a red flag at a bull to me."
The French art bureaucracy has rules and protocols that baffle someone used to the free-for-all of the American art market. To be a formal part of the museum, art has to be deemed suitable for the "national collection," as determined by a panel. The panel was duly consulted about the Kodiak pieces and, finally, accepted the gifts.
Eaton next asked if the museum would consider showing work by other modern Alaska Native artists. Having broken the ice, so to speak, he found the French officials were more receptive to the idea. He got help from Boulogne's mayor Frederic Cuvillier and deputy mayor Claude Allan, who holds the culture portfolio.
Allan made the trip to Alaska with the Pinart masks and, while here, saw for himself a number of new art works by Alaska Natives.
The idea for an all-Alaska show was further championed by the young director of the Boulogne museum, Celine Ramio. Together, the advocates navigated the national arts bureaucracy which, when all the right procedures had been followed, gave its blessing — with certain conditions. Nothing with sea mammal parts would be accepted, for instance. "They just didn't want to deal with that politically," Eaton said.
Then there was the test of whether the contributors were "real artists" in the French way of seeing things.
"They told us there could be no 'emerging artists' in the show," Eaton said. "One had to be a professional, with a formal art degree or a lifetime portfolio. They had to be represented in three or more museums. Their work had to be consistent and recognizable as their style. And they had to be certified by a panel of qualified individuals. So we had to put together a committee."
The committee consisted of artist Don Decker, recipient of this year's Distinguished Artist award from the Rasmuson Foundation, Alutiiq scholar Gordon Pullar, Koniag past president Will Anderson and Ramio, from the museum. They came up with 40 names that fit the criteria and Eaton began the process of contacting them.
By creating the first contemporary Alaska Native art collection in Europe, particularly as part of the same institution that had such an extensive collection of Alaska antiquities, Eaton argues, the project presented the "first opportunity to gain significant European exposure for modern art and the cultural traditions from which they arise."
It was important that the art be seen as gifts from Alaska artists, collectors and corporations to the people of France, Eaton said. He didn't want to get funding from the government or a foundation, in part because of the strings that might be attached.
Artist Alvin Amason, who contributed work to the show and assisted with pulling it together, said that was the right decision. "It's amazing the freedom you have when you're not taking anyone else's money," he said.
A 'Who's Who'
Not everyone was enthusiastic, Eaton said. One artist was offended that anyone was giving anything to "colonial thieves" without being paid. Another protested, but participated. Some had schedule conflicts. A few couldn't be contacted in time.
In the end, upward of 50 fine pieces by 29 artists came in, most of it which would be considered on the high end. Eaton thinks glasswork by Preston Singletary could bring around $30,000 in an American gallery.
The list of names in the show includes Larry Ahvakana and Susie Bevins-Ericsen from Barrow, Israel Shotridge and Alison Bremner from Southeast, Othneil "Art" Oomittuk from Point Hope, Sylvester Ayek, Ron Senungetuk, Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner, Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Eaton, Amason and more. There are also pieces by the late John Hoover and the late Melvin Olanna.
"It's like a 'Who's Who,' " said Rebecca Lyon, one of the artists donating her work to France.
Lyon's piece, titled "Ready for the Rapture," was done several years ago, she said, "But it's directly related to the collections in Boulogne. I patterned it after a mask that Pinart collected here. But I changed the meaning, which was easy to do since the original meaning of the mask is lost."
"Rapture" takes the shapes of the original mask and tweaks them into a commentary on nuclear war. "It had these marks that looked like tears and the most wonderful shapes of objects coming out of the top that mimic missiles," Lyon said. "The round elements were perfect spots for the Doomsday Clock and the nuclear symbol and other things I wanted to speak about.
"Hopefully, the French people will understand how I took the mask and turned it into contemporary art, something that speaks to the way we are now, which is what a contemporary artist ought to be doing."
Red carpet treatment
The people of Boulogne are rolling out the red carpet for the event. "The city spent 100,000 Euros just to do the exhibit, the remodeling, new cases, promotion," Eaton said.
The show, classified as "an exhibit of national interest," will run for six months then be considered for inclusion among France's official "national treasures," like the Mona Lisa.
There will be school programs, artist residencies and two symposiums, one in Boulogne and one in Paris at which participating artists will discuss continuity of culture. "Our main theme is: We're not dead," Eaton said.
"We want this collection to show that Native culture is healthy and living," said Amason.
One tangible benefit of the collaboration between the Alaska artists and the French museum is an "almost unique exchange program" that sends two masks from the Boulogne trove to the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak for five years, after which they will be exchanged for two other pieces from the Pinart collection.
Eaton hopes the show will be greeted as a kind of "repatriation in reverse" and that it will give a boost to the marketability of contemporary Alaska Native artists. He also hopes more Alaskans will have access to the Pinart antiquities and other Alaska works in museums around Europe, some still in boxes and only available to scholars and scientists.
About half of the contributing artists are expected to make the trip for the grand opening, including Lyon, who received a Rasmuson fellowship to help pay for the journey.
"There's nothing like it," she said, "to go to places where objects of culture are kept is life-changing. Especially seeing the Alutiiq things. These are precious. When you see them, you're in tears. It's like a reunion with family. I'm glad the French are letting people visit their relatives.
"It's the right thing to do."