SAN FRANCISCO — How would you describe the art of Native Americans? If you were unfamiliar with the field of Native American contemporary art then you might muse on woven rugs in rich hues, ceramic vessels, silver jewelry inlaid with turquoise, petroglyphs etched or painted on sandstone walls, and carved totems with animal motifs. However, it is not the whole truth of what is going on in the indigenous art world as recent exhibitions, including at the Power Plant in Toronto and Wilmer Jennings Gallery in New York, suggest.
For several decades, younger generations of Native American artists, more commonly called First Nations artists in Canada, have ventured beyond their traditional aesthetics to make work that deals with and references contemporary culture in tandem with their indigenous roots. Artists like Da-ka-xeen Mehner (Tlingit/N’ishga), C. Maxx Stevens (Seminole), and Tanis Maria S’eiltin (Tlingit), to name a few, are widely exhibited both domestically at major museums and galleries, as well as internationally. In addition to the rising presence of Native Americans on the contemporary art scene, they are making their mark in the fashion world too.
It is clear that interest in Native American design is ripe, if controversial. A number of recent debacles in the fashion and entertainment industry appropriated “native” motifs in various unauthorized and disrespectful contexts. From the 2012 Victoria’s Secret controversy surrounding the lingerie ensemble donned by model Karlie Kloss, which featured a war-bonnet and squash blossom necklace to the photo shoot of actress Michelle Williams done up in “redface” on the cover of AnOther magazine or singer Gwen Stefani scantily clad in “Indian” garb for her 2012 music video “Looking Hot” (that was subsequently removed from all media outlets), and event the lawsuit against Urban Outfitters for its “Navajo” panties that same year, the use of native imagery as if it is not a living and breathing culture is shocking. These were shameful transgressions, but some Native American artists are venturing into the world of fashion too, reclaiming the respectful use of their culture’s aesthetic in new and interesting ways.
One such voice is that of Tlingit/Aleut artist Nicholas Galanin, whose recent Vancouver exhibition was satirically titled I Loooove your Culture and took place at Trench Gallery. From conceptual art installations to his career as a musician, and newer projects flowing into the world of fashion and even salmon fishing, Galanin lets his creativity bleed into a myriad of avenues of expression, both visual and auditory. Galanin represents the hybridity that occurs living on the reservation in the digital age.
Born in in Sitka, in southeastern Alaska, Galanin first got involved in the visual arts by learning the traditional crafts of his tribe from his father and uncle, then headed to London to study at London Guildhall University — an experience that pushed him to explore new artistic terrain. “They [Guildhall] thought my work was too literal,” says Galanin. “They didn’t want me to do it.” Galanin confesses that the Native-American aesthetic he began with while studying in London was not met with approval, and that he was encouraged to go beyond what he knew as a Native-American artist and embrace a more diverse approach to aesthetics and practice. Following his stint in London, where he received a bachelor’s degree in jewelry design, Galanin headed down south, way down south, and enrolled in the graduate school at Massey University in New Zealand, where he furthered his study of native arts and earned a graduate degree in Indigenous Visual Arts in 2004.
Galanin embraces contemporary aesthetics but laces them with elements of his own culture. From pieces like his recent print series that take Andy Warhol’s factory aesthetic of pop-bright colors and graphic contrast and marries that with iconic, historical images of Native Americans superimposed with text, to his film project featuring a break-dancer dancing to the beat of Native chanting and drums, hybridity is a driving force.
Galanin wants his work to link his heritage and contemporary culture, but does not want to impose any predetermined idea of what that means. “I don’t want to force them to sit together,” he adds. Galanin stresses that “you have to use your own unique perspective, we all have one. Use your own unique perspective and try to contribute and not just consume.”
There is a give and take, an engagement between the politics of seeing and the act of creating that exists in Galanin’s work. This tension is interestingly echoed in a recent foray into fashion. “I’ve made some ties and recently completed a course on shoemaking,” he explains. The fashion label Beyond Buckskin Boutique, which calls itself “the first ever Native American-operated online gallery store specializing in Native-made fashion, jewelry, and accessories,” features Galanin’s work, which is partly an attempt to reclaim agency in the aesthetic of tribal-influenced garb.
Galanin is sure to be more visible this year. His work will be included in group shows at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Five Myles in Brooklyn, the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, and the National Gallery of Canada. He also recently received a fellowship from the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis.
“Culture cannot be contained as it unfolds,” he explains in his artist statement. “My art enters this stream at many different points, looking backwards, looking forwards, generating its own sound and motion. I am inspired by generations of Tlingit creativity and contribute to this wealthy conversation through active curiosity. There is no room in this exploration for the tired prescriptions of the ‘Indian Art World’ and its institutions. Through creating I assert my freedom.”
This Is Not A Silent Movie: Four Contemporary Alaska Native Artists continues at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles (5814 Wilshire Boulevard, Miracle Mile, Los Angeles) until September 8.