Mind games 

Native Alaskan exhibit plays on assumptions

When you walk into the Paxson Gallery at the University of Montana, you are greeted by two competing soundtracks: an electronic hip-hop beat and a traditional Native American song. To your left, two videos show similarly competing images: a modern dancer on one screen and a Native dancer in traditional garb on the other. Which soundtrack goes with which dancer? If you guessed that video artist Nicholas Galanin swapped the original soundtracks on the videos in order to make you think, you are exactly wrong. The installation plays on assumptions—that viewers will deduce the music and images have been juxtaposed by the artist after they were recorded, as a statement. In fact, the Native dancer is actually moving to the modern beat, the modern dancer to the traditional one.

The videos belong to Galanin's two-part installation titled, "Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan (We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That Has Been Left in Our Care)." The installation is part of the current exhibition at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, This is Not A Silent Movie: Four Contemporary Alaska Native Artists, named after Native American writer Sherman Alexie's famous line, "This is not a silent movie, our voices will save our lives," and it features three other artists, Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Susie Silook and Da-ka-xeen Mehner.

The media used by the four contemporary artists varies widely—from human hair and walrus tusk to video and digital photography—but the messages they send have common themes: how we remember, how we move forward, how we communicate with one another. Silook's traditional-yet-modern figures contrast with more abstract metal daggers by Mehner, but the pieces create a chorus with a more central theme that goes beyond simply examining race or nationality. The exhibit feels alive and timeless. Fresh but also eternal. Galanin puts it best when discussing the four artists and the state of Native Alaskan art: "We are here. We are living. We are growing. We are changing."

click to enlarge Nicholas Galanin’s “Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter” shows as part of the exhibit This is Not a Silent Movie.
  • Nicholas Galanin’s “Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter” shows as part of the exhibit This is Not a Silent Movie.

Galanin, a Tlingit/Aleut who currently lives in Sitka, Alaska, uses much of his art to explore the intersection of Native cultures and pop culture, including the misappropriation of ideas, the insidiousness of stereotypes and the ongoing trouble of misrepresentation. One of his pieces splices together an Edward Curtis photograph of a Hopi girl with a butterfly whorl hairstyle and a photograph of Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia wearing her hair in the same style.

Galanin's own life and education reflect the juxtapositions he creates in some of his pieces. He says he was taught about traditional art from members of his community as well as his family. (His great-grandfather was a wood carver, his father is an artist and musician.) At the same time, he has studied contemporary art all over the world, receiving his bachelor's at London Guildhall University in silversmithing and jewelry design and his master's at Massey University in New Zealand, where he studied conceptual art. That's where he says he found his current passion.

The result is art that begins a conversation about culture: Are your definitions of Native American art affecting your viewing of the art? What are your assumptions about Native American art? Do you presume that Native American art is unchanging, or even extinct? And where'd you even get that idea?

"Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan"the videos with the two dancers—seems to spur these questions as soon as you walk through the door. The pieces that follow down the hallway continue the conversation with depth, thoughtfulness and even some playfulness.

"I hope a lot of my work will tell you about yourself and your assumptions," Galanin says. "It's about the viewer, not me or my own relationship to my work. The songs aren't reversed. Opening the container of wisdom is thinking about our art, our culture, our language, our dance. It's about having our own creative sovereignty. To create and grow as we intend, on our own terms and in our own space, uninhibited by the romanticism of culture."

This is Not A Silent Movie runs until July 4 in the Paxson and Meloy galleries in UM's PARTV building. For more information, call 406-243-2019. Visit umt.edu/montanamuseum for gallery hours.

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