Tradition Underpins Contempory Native Art
By Mikki Smith, Daily News Art Reviewer
art by top to bottom: Nathan Jackson, Melvin Olanna, James Schoppert, Susie Qimmiqsak Bevins
The Anchorage Museum of History and Art is showing "Contemporary Alaska Native Art From the Museum Collection," exhibiting works by artists of the many cultures indigenous to Alaska. Each of the pieces relates directly to the Native heritage of the artist yet is unique to each creator. What emerges is a combination of lively traditions and the artistic freedom to incorporate those ideas into contemporary works.
Several masks in the gallery stay close to forms historically used for ceremonies. "Eaglet Mask" by Nathan Jackson and "Humanoid Bear Mask" by Ernest Smeltzer are representations of animal imagery. The faces are carved from wood and painted in the Northwest Indian styles.
From the other end of the state, Nelson Islander Jack Abraham's "Moses, Moses," a smooth wood "spirit mask" adorned with feathers, looks much like the Athabaskan work on display in the museum's history corridor. However, the title suggests outside Western influence.
Representation of harvested animals is a long-standing practice among the Eskimo craftsmen. Traditionally the replica is carved from material salvaged from the animals' bodies.
But "Swimming Bear" by Melvin Olanna and Lawrence Beck's "Poonk Timertik Inua (punk walrus spirit)" are created with man-made materials. Olanna's bear is a sleek and powerful sculpture of a polar bear formed of metal. Beck's walrus uses found objects to express the image of the tusked pinniped. Constructed from a tire and various shiny metal objects, it is a crossbreed from two intertwined worlds.
Sonya Kelliher-Combs and James Schoppert use pieces of totem imagery to create abstract paintings. Kelliher-Combs' "Raven I" is a symbolic image of raven and perhaps other mythical creatures. Layers of oils and acrylics and repetition of the symbol obscure the bird figure. The raven is translucent, as though changing or shedding his outer appearance.
Schoppert's sculptural paintings are pieces of stories told with symbolism. "Blueberries" are pieces of a whole rearranged in a chaotic but visually cohesive order. "Where Eagle Talon Salmon From the Channels" captures the energy of a story.
The painting focuses on a struggle between two unseen forces, one pulling up and the other anchoring down. Schoppert's monochromatic wooden panels read like story blankets.
Not only are they beautiful to observe, they serve as a media for communication.
Social issues that directly affect Native Alaskans are addressed in a wall-hanging by Susie Qimmiqsak Bevins. "People in Peril -- Bound by Alcohol" depicts four figures bound with sinew and social disease. Bevins' work raises questions of the decline of a culture.
The pieces in this show are all considered contemporary, though several of the artists are deceased.
But without previous knowledge of traditional Native Alaskan art, the concept of these pieces would be lost. Western cultures, technology and social impact have influenced this work.
Yet despite seismic culture shock, Alaska Native art continues to encompass continual change, heritage and the natural environment.
Mikki Smith has a bachelor's degree in Art from the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Anchorage Museum of History
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