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Roundtable: A discussion about art with some of the most renowned Native artists around

In conjunction with Sealaska Heritage’s first statewide exhibit, Alaska Native Masks: Art & Ceremony, SHI invited nine artists who had loaned masks and whose work is featured in the exhibit to discuss some of the main themes explored in the show, as well as broader topics related to their work as Alaska Native artists.

(From left: Preston Singletary, Larry Ahvakana, Drew Michael, Perry Eaton, Robert Davidson, Rosita Worl, Earl Atchak, Art Oomittuk, David A. Boxley. Not pictured: Mick Beasley)

The panel, which convened Tuesday at the Walter Soboleff Building, included some of the most highly regarded Northwest Coast and Alaska Native artists working today. The first panel, moderated by Alutiiq artist Perry Eaton of Kodiak, featured Iñupiaq artist Art Oomittuk of Point Hope, Tlingit artist Mick Beasley of Juneau, Yup'ik/Iñupiaq artist Drew Michael of Anchorage and Tsimshian artist David A. Boxley of Metlakatla.

The second, moderated by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary of Seattle, featured Haida artist Robert Davidson of Massett, Cup’ik artist Earl Atchak of Chevak, and Iñupiaq artist Larry Ahvakana of Barrow and Anchorage.

(Rosita Worl prepares to make opening remarks before the second panel)

In introducing the panelists, SHI president Rosita Worl acknowledged the historical role of artists in holding Alaska Native cultures together during decades of cultural suppression by missionaries and other Western influences, and in continuing to do so today.

“We went through a period where our culture went underground. Fortunately those days are in the past and our culture persists,” Worl said. “We have to acknowledge and pay tribute to our artists. Our artists never relented in continuing to do our work …. Not only were they trying to make sure our culture could survive, they brought it out into the light so it would continue to flower.”

Worl also spoke about SHI’s recent push to unify Alaska Native artists across the state.  

“We believe that in working together we can do something magnificent, something great. We wanted to have this event as the kickoff for our work in Alaska Native and Northwest Coast art,” she said.

Art & Ceremony

One of the topics the artists discussed, one reflected in the exhibit title “Art & Ceremony,” was the conflict, if any, between making art for the commercial market and making art for ceremonial uses. 

David Boxley said for him, that clash isn’t an issue. 

(David A. Boxley, far right, speaks during the first panel. At left is Perry Eaton and Drew Michael.)

“My attitude about those two subjects – making a living or perpetuating and sustaining the culture – they kind of run along parallel lines … I’ve been really fortunate to be able to do both.”

Like many of the artists present, Boxley described his work as an artist as being bound up with other aspects of his life; in his case, his role as the dance group leader of Git Hoan, as a father who is passing along cultural knowledge to his sons, and as someone who is deeply committed to perpetuating Tsimshian traditions and ceremonies. Boxley said he sees himself as a link in an ancient chain.

“The rope was completely cut, our traditional rope. And I’ve been working all of my adult life, grabbing both ends of that rope trying to get it back together, strand by strand,” he said.

Art Oomittuk echoed this idea.

“One of the things I’m doing as an artist is trying to continue the things that our ancestors have handed down to us,” Oomittuk said. “Everything I do, I try to honor my ancestors regardless of what the piece is for. … I don’t have a concept in my mind that says ‘I’ve got to do this one contemporary, I’ve got to do this one culturally.’ It never comes into my mind that I have to do something like that. I just do it.” 

Drew Michael, the youngest artist on the panel, said whether he’s making a mask that will be danced, or for hanging on the wall, the idea of intention – as expressed through storytelling, or the idea of transformation or release – is still central. 

(Drew Michael and Perry Eaton view the “Alaska Native Masks” exhibit in the Nathan Jackson Gallery)

“I really try to focus on intention, telling a story that is from me and allowing it to manifest within the object,” he said.

Robert Davidson said he finds it easier to think of his art in terms of three categories: ceremonial and sacred, personal and crest, and commercial and trade. He bases his categories on historical events, for example traditional trading practices between Haida Gwaii and the mainland. The categories are not mutually exclusive.

 “A mask, for example, can carry all three,” he said. “Being a ceremonial object doesn’t negate the other two.” 

Tradition & Innovation

The artists also discussed the concepts of tradition and innovation, of remaining true to the past while inhabiting the time in which they live. 

Preston Singletary said it can be a challenge to figure out how to balance traditions and the market’s desire for things that are new. 

“One of the things that’s been the hallmark of my career is that I have this niche of glass – that’s something that’s kind of exciting and necessary for the collectors,” he said. “It draws in new eyes, and it brings another dimension to indigenous art.” 

Ahvakana, who has worked in media including, silver, stone, bronze, and paint, said he looks at challenging himself with different materials within a cultural context. 

“You can challenge yourself and work with these different materials and come up with something that has meaning to you as a Native artist, or a Native person. When you look at it, it gives you a memory of your traditions, I think, no matter what materials you’re working with.”

Perry Eaton emphasized the idea that “the culture is now,” and that innovation and adaptation have always been parts of it.

(From left, Mick Beasley, moderator Perry Eaton, and Drew Michael)

“I’m often asked if I make my masks the same way my ancestors did. And I always answer, ‘Absolutely. I do it with the best tools available,’” Eaton said.

(Larry Ahvakana, right, speaks during the second panel. At left is Earl Atchak, in the center is Preston Singletary)

Several artists discussed the ways in which the art itself provides a conduit between past and present, as well as a way for the artist to understand history and share it with others. 

Speaking during the second panel, Earl Atchak said his views of his art changed over time as he discovered more about his ancestors.

“In the beginning I was making masks for selling, because that’s what I was doing for a living,” Atchak said. “But over the course of my work as an artist I started getting more and more fascinated with what my ancestors did. I constantly went back –  and i kept going back and going back.”

Atchak said his connection to the past is constantly fed by his experiences on the tundra as a hunter, which in turn feeds his art. He described being out seal hunting and seeing the bubble of air that comes up to the surface from the seal.

“I remember that thought, I remember that experience that I saw and I keep it with me for so long, and because I’m an artist I start seeing that (image in an art) piece, like in a mask. And that same experience that I experienced is what my great grandfather experienced ... for me, that’s what I do, I keep going out to the tundra.” 

Oomittuk said the connection between past and present often manifests on its own, when he lets the art speak for itself.

(Panel 1, from left, Art Oomittuk, Mick Beasley, moderator Perry Eaton, Drew Michael and David A. Boxley)

“I’m always surprised when I find a piece of artwork that comes from my village and I realize that I’m doing the exact same artwork that my ancestors did. I’m not trying to do it like that, it just happens to be. … I create images that I think nobody would ever think of seeing, and then I go to a museum and see the exact same piece that I just created. I think that I’m alone in this world in creating these images but there was somebody who did it before me.”

Davidson also said in his experience, designs and dances that he believed to be new and original often turned out to be familiar to the Elders. He described debuting a Salmon Dance with his dance group, the Rainbow Creek Dancers.

“I thought it was new and some Elder said, ‘Oh wow, I haven’t seen that one for a long time!’” Davidson recalled. “What that says to me is that we have a cosmic memory. The gift that we have as artists is to tap into that cosmic memory and bring to fruition ideas that are already out there.” 

Responsibility to the Next Generation

Artists also tackled the topic of the major challenges facing them as Alaska Native artists working today.

Atchak said for him it is cultural loss.

“The loss of who we are and where we come from. The loss – that, that Ebay, that we so depend on. My people don’t look back to the Elders anymore,” said Atchak. “What can we do to let the next generation grasp something that is fading away? That’s my greatest fear, that loss and how we can turn it around.” 

Davidson said he believes youth need to learn to take their time.

“What is lacking in the next generation – not all of them –  is patience,” Davidson said. “Taking time to establish themselves.” 

Davidson said it also takes time to find meaning. For him, as a young man, exploring the art became a way to understand his culture, and reconnect with the Elders.

“In rediscovering our history, the art was a catalyst. The art became the catalyst for the Elders to talk about protocol … The art triggered memory.” 

Michael, who teaches youth around the state, said he believes artists have a responsibility to not only teach what they know, but also to spur honest dialogue about the past. 

“We do have responsibility to perpetuate and share what we know. We also have a responsibility to talk about things in honest ways,” Michael said. “I think there’s a huge problem within our state where we don’t do that. We put on these masks that kind of shield us from dealing with some of this historical trauma that has hit us. It’s very important to talk about these histories and to talk about what has really happened, and what we are really dealing with. … I think it’s so fitting that we can use masks to do this.” 

Beasley said he views masks as a particularly important artform, providing a basis from which to learn other forms of carving. 

“We need to lay the foundation for carving masks,” he said. “Somehow we have to recapture that, and hand it off.”

Oomittuk said he feels artists have a responsibility to set a good example, but allows those who want to learn to seek him out.

“In Point Hope there’s a lot of youth that are getting into dancing and they’re starting up the languages a little. I always just make sure that when I interact with the youth, I don’t necessarily teach them. I think that if they want to study the art, or the way that I do things, they’ll come to me. And they have.” 

Echoing Worl’s introductory words about the vital role artists play in sustaining Native culture, Boxley said he believes it is their collective responsibility to carry it forward. 

“Years ago, someone told me, I don’t remember where I heard this, ‘Artists are the canoe in which the culture travels.’ And whether they accept that or not, it is a responsibility. Some people are in the back with the steering paddle and some are in the front, pulling that canoe along as fast as they can go.”

(Robert Davidson and Mick Beasley view David A Boxley’s house screen at the Walter Soboleff Building)

Toward the end of the all-day event, Davidson offered some parting thoughts. 

“I’ve heard the word ‘struggle’ so many times in the last several hours and I want to drop that from our vocabulary … rather than being a struggle, let’s treat it as a challenge that we know we can find a solution to.” 

(Butterfly Mask by TJ Young. At right are two masks by Doug Chilton.)

Text by Amy Fletcher. Photos by Sierra Wilson and Nobu Koch.