Breathtaking exhibit seeks to preserve Alaska Native art
ANCHORAGE, Alaska - A breathtaking exhibit of drawings by Yup'ik and Alaska Inuit artists of the 19th and 20th centuries hopes to be the catalyst for unearthing more examples of this fragile art form before they vanish.
The drawings, according to curator Suzi Jones, who is also the deputy director of exhibit host the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, "exist at the intersection of art and anthropology." They represent a new medium in the process of discovery by these cultures, she points out.
Expectations that these works would be interesting only for historical purposes can be checked at the door. While some do indeed trace, often in loving and exquisite detail, the artifacts and folkways of northern and western Native Alaskans of their time, few are interesting for that alone. The range of human interest, passion and aspiration revealed in these works makes experiencing them a thrilling event.
There has never been a complete show on this topic before, and according to Jones, "it is our hope that this project, by drawing attention to Eskimo drawings, may spark additional research and discovery of other artists and other works."
(According to a placard in the exhibit, the word "Eskimo," considered derogatory by some, has come to have an acceptable use in Alaska because the term "Inuit" does not encompass the Yup'ik people, while "Eskimo" can describe both peoples.)
Jones notes a strong narrative component uniting most of the artists, to the point that some of them wrote accompanying texts for the drawings so their meaning would not be misconstrued.
The "first generation" of the artists were 19th century Inupiaq men apprenticing as reindeer herders, as well as Inupiaq men and women attending the first rural schools in Alaska.
According to Jones, these artists, some of them unknown, produced drawings that are the equivalent of the "ledger" artists of the Plains Indians. She called them "remarkable historic and ethnographic documents," and drew attention to the details of "clothing, ceremonial events, and the subsistence activities of hunting, trapping and fishing. Some even record memorable events, such as a hunter's close encounter with a bear."
Their contemporary, Guy Kakarook, is the first of six individual artists who dominate the show. And while his drawings of schooners, hunters, religious ceremonies, and birds have their ethnographic moments, an artist's sensibility comes to the front in his habit of making summer and winter drawings of the same scene. In another example, an Alaskan couple is set off by a similar drawing of a Siberian couple.
A seemingly saucy wink from a human fox spirit drawn in 1924 evokes a modern response, as well. This comes from a series of Nunivak Island men (Puqtauq is the artist for this one) who met Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen in Nome and obligingly made drawings for him of masks and shamans.
Milo Minock (circa 1915 - 1996) is featured with pencil and ink drawings of subsistence tools that the exhibit says "are rendered with astonishing accuracy and precision." These include "Eskimo Dance," "Pot-Latch," "Eskimo Woman Skinning Beaver" and "Skinning Seal."
Florence Napaaq Malewotkuk (1906 - 1971) is a wonderful discovery, for the sense of humor and range of emotions and subject matter she brings to her work. She, too, made 1920s drawings for an archaeologist, Otto W. Geist, but didn't stop there. A rendering of a tooth-pulling captures an all-too-human but less than sublime moment. A drawing called "Chasing Son Out of House" is downright funny as the son races off at bullet speed (elsewhere it's revealed his offense was smoking cigarettes).
Malewotkuk's work also frequently shows peoples' tattoos that, beyond adornment, become symbols of personal expression, and people smiling, something quite rare in this exhibit. The grins, while leavening the sometimes grim depictions of other people, can be funny as well. You wonder why one gap-toothed gentleman is displaying his lack of teeth until you realize the drawing is of an old man with a younger wife.
And she is able to work artistic contrasts into her work, such as the portrait of a man banging a drum. His fierce expression is offset by soft, delicate eyelashes.
George Aden "Twok" Ahgupuk (1911 - 2001) is "known for his pen and ink drawings on finely tanned reindeer skin. Reindeer herding, hunting, and fishing are favorite subjects," according to the exhibit, which also points out how fish scales are sometimes visible under his paint. Ahgupuk's nine-paneled works occasionally remind you of classical tryptchs, as in one where, the exhibit points out, the bottom three scenes share the same horizon.
Robert Mayokok (1903 - 1983) "produced hundreds of drawings of Inupiaq life each year," according to the exhibit. One that stands out is a self portrait of himself as a radio announcer, wearing a seemingly out-of-place parka in front of a studio microphone.
Kivetoruk Moses (1903 - 1982) is another find, with wonderful color portraits in mixed media such as ink, colored pencil, pencil and watercolor. He mixes in one of a 1950s pin-up girl among more expected portraits of shamanic activities.
Even the catalog of "Eskimo Drawings" is worth a good look, not only for Jones' knowledgeable introduction, but for the recollections of the artists by friends and relatives that share space with the usual scholarly art history treatments.
Co-curator for the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 14, was Walter Van Horn, the museum's Curator of Collections.