Homer art gallery hosts “Decolonizing Alaska” exhibit

An innovative new exhibit at Bunnell Street Arts Center has turned a spotlight on Alaska’s long history of colonization. Asia Freeman, the curator of “Decolonizing Alaska”, says colonization has had a powerful influence on the state.

“As a resource state, Alaska has been colonized by forces for centuries now, that have defined and shaped our identity as a state,” said Freeman.

The exhibition tells a multitude of stories from many perspectives.

"Counting on Liberty" by Rebecca Lyon. (Courtesy of Bunnell Street Arts Center)
“Counting on Liberty” by Rebecca Lyon. “I have printed her image on a combination of a US twenty dollar bill and the American flag and given her a cartoon crown of the Statue of Liberty.” – Lyon (Courtesy of Bunnell Street Arts Center)

Rebecca Lyon’s mixed media piece “Counting on Liberty” represents the long struggle for women’s rights.

“It’s a piece of artwork that I silkscreened an image of my great grandmother, Anastasia Nutnaltna,” said Lyon.

Lyon’s great grandmother was sold into slavery as a young girl. According to family history, she was later purchased by Lyon’s great-grandfather, an immigrant from Sweden.

“She had a very difficult life but if you look at the photograph and the demeanor of her look, as she looks out in the audience, you can see such pride, strength. Even in an age when she had little or no rights,” said Lyon.

Her grandmother wears a cartoon crown similar to the Statue of Liberty. Lyon says that she hopes to draw more attention to the issue of who should be on U.S. currency. Surrounding the image of her great-grandmother, Lyon has positioned a contemporary Athabascan counting cord. The knotted deer hide is covered with buttons and memorabilia, documenting the history of the women’s rights movement.

“It’s all in this bright Plexiglas color and bright colors to get your attention, to scream at you across the room and say ‘let’s talk about women’s rights,’” said Lyon.

Across the room, Joel Isaak’s “Visions of Summer” is playing on a loop. He describes his artwork in pretty simple terms.

“It’s a fish screen TV screen,” said Isaak.

A hazy video of his family at fish camp is visible through translucent salmon skins that he whipstitched together.

Silhouetted on the screen is a video of him dancing. To create the video, Isaak danced for hour-long stretches at night, when the studio was empty.

“I’d go to the dance studio at my school and I’d dance all night long,” said Isaak.

For Isaak, his art not only celebrates his Dena’ina heritage, it captures some of what makes the natural world so extraordinary.

“The sense of wonderment, kind of intrigue, otherworldliness. When I’m dip-netting at the beach, I feel fish run into me and you can’t see it. So it’s kind of a little portal into another world,” said Isaak.

Artist Mike Conti stands beside his black and white photograph of a young Yup’ik woman named Jacquie.

“I call it Yup’ik Ena, which means “Yu’pik house” and then in quotes “White gaze,” said Conti.

"White Gaze" by Michael Conti.
“White Gaze” by Michael Conti. (Courtesy of Bunnell Street Arts Center)

The photograph shows the woman wearing jeans and a kuspuk. She’s standing inside of an Alaska Native diorama full of stiffly posed mannequins in traditional dress.

“It’s like a cross-section, so you’re looking through glass and Jackie has her hands up, like she’s pressed against the glass. Then in the glass, you can see a reflection of me, the photographer. So that’s the white gaze part,” said Conti.

As a self-described “white guy”, Conti is acutely aware of how often the Alaska Native narrative has been in the hands of outsiders.

“The control of the perception is in the viewer. In this case, the white photographer,” said Conti.

For curator Asia Freeman, this collaboration of native and non-native artists is part of what makes the show so groundbreaking.

“I think the thing that is most exciting is to actually say out loud that this type of show hasn’t happened before. I can’t think of an example where native and non-native artists come together to explore and challenge the longstanding effects of colonization through their work,” said Freeman.

The “Decolonizing Alaska” exhibit at Bunnell Street Arts Center runs through the end of August. Over the next year, it will travel to Valdez, Washington DC, Juneau and Anchorage.

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