Interviewed by Caitlin Donald
Tanis S’eiltin’s work emphasizes traditional Tlingit technique and material in which she utilizes to deliver uniquely contemporary and political forms. Her work begs for exploration through intricate, vivacious, and provocative design. It has been my privilege to interview Tanis about her work and artistic processes, her identity, and about creating art that matters.
Caitlin Donald: I am very curious about your If I Only Had a Seaworthy Vessel installation. I understand this was in collaboration with Nata Lukas involving the concept of journey. Can you talk further about the inspiration for the elements within this installation? What was this journey for you?
Tanis S’Eiltin: The primary inspiration for this collaborative installation was the opportunity to work with Nata Lukas who initially secured the gallery space. Together we decided to include natural elements we collected and were continuing to collect from local beaches. Our timeframe for creating the installation was brief and we had already begun our usual migration to visit the spring tides. Nata’s collection of large drift-roots, which he had previously collected over a period of a couple of years, served as the impetus for the installation that would suggest as the viewer moved through it, a journey through an underwater world.
If I Only Had a Seaworthy Vessel
“Journey” for me came to signify an ancestral connection to the waterways of the Pacific Northwest, and the desire to travel on those waters north to my childhood home in Alaska. Contemplating this meaning of “journey” contributed to the realization that the longer I live away from home the more difficult it is to return; physically, intellectually and culturally. Therefore, creating a ship out of stone was alarmingly appropriate. I collected, with the help of family members, hundreds of small flat beach stones of different colors. Together we glued the red, gray and slate green stones onto the gallery wall in a pattern that resembled a wood fishing vessel grounded on shore.
If I Only Had a Seaworthy Vessel
CD: In the Homer Tribune regarding your ‘Hit’ installation, you speak about art as a form of resistance, and how you utilized that within this piece by drawing parallels between what happened in Angoon and the Iraq War. Do you find that resistance plays a large role in your other pieces and installations?
TS: Yes, although I do not consider myself an activist I find what inspires the creative process is the ability to visually re-create stories or histories of marginalized peoples. Courage to create and exhibit “art of resistance” comes from an appreciation of “traditional” (pre-contact and contact) Tlingit art that was/is aesthetically stunning and politically potent. The goal is to create art that informs and hopefully encourages the viewer to question systems that control the construction one-dimensional myths and truths.
The first major installation that was created with the goal to inform was blatantly titled, Resisting Acts of Distillation, ANCSA 1971. It referenced the impact of the Alaska land claims settlement act on a Nation’s struggle to understand their evolving political and cultural identity.
Resisting Acts of Distillation
I continue to create a variety of works that are charged with contentious subjects. However, I think it is also necessary to just create beautiful objects as well - that are not intended to inform the viewer – for it is this work that also feeds the creative muse and contributes to ideas that re-appear in future works of art that may be political in nature.
CD: You are quoted to have said that the art world has never accepted Native fine art. Why do you think this is? What are the assumptions and expectations of Native art that cause this lack of acceptance?
TS: Reflecting on the quote above, I am not sure I would use the term “never” with regard to the mainstream art world’s acceptance or lack thereof of Native fine art. There are non-natives who work hard to better understand contemporary Native American artists and their work. However, it seems that there still exists a great misunderstanding of the political, social and cultural context of most Native American art. This is due primarily to inappropriate presentations of Native Art for the last 500 + years by Western institutions and the continued lack of multicultural education in today’s academia. (Although responding to this questionnaire has provided a glimmer of hope!). Influential non-native (and in some cases, Native) curators and critics continually misrepresent the stories and aesthetics within works of art or disregard contemporary Native art altogether and admittedly state a lack of knowledge with regard to art that is community based. (The more I grapple with your questions the more I feel I am “painting myself into a corner”). It is impossible to define art let alone Native American Art! As I write I continue to question the use of terms such as fine art, high art and Native art and their ability to encompass a true sense of art made by contemporary indigenous artists both living in and outside of their Native communities.
So you ask, “What are the assumptions … of Native art that causes this lack of acceptance?” I can respond as a Tlingit woman artist – it is assumed, in many cases, that I will create work that is easily identifiable as “Pacific Northwest Coast art,” “Pacific Northwest Coast Women’s Art” or that my art will be aesthetically “primitive” and provide nuances of spiritual energy available for cooptation (I do like to parody this hopefully out dated theory in some of my found-object work). I am really not sure what the people in power in the “High Art World” assume Native art should be – not sure there are entities that are aware of contemporary indigenous artists – I could be wrong!
CD: Your Savage Apparel series really excites me. I find myself wishing that I could physically touch the variety of materials you use within each piece. I look at the skins and hides, the claws, and the knots and I feel this urge to be a part of the sewing and stitching that it took to construct the final products. As you have said, many of the techniques used to create these pieces come from your childhood. Since these are all unfamiliar processes to me but familiar to you, it makes me wonder what you thought and felt as you designed the series. How much of this was a ‘natural process’ for you? How much of this was an experience unique to Savage Apparel?
TS: I find it very inspiring to work in both a calculated, methodical manner as well as in an intuitive manner. If I work on a project that is well planned and carefully executed I like to balance it with another project that is playfully created without regard to aesthetic standards of precision and beauty. Allowing a piece to fail or pushing it to the point of destruction is liberating as these works often inspire the creation of art that is fluid, efficient and not overly contrived or stale. I feel it is important to avoid copying your own work, especially if pieces have been well received and are considered extremely successful. To do so would result in work that is formulaic and predictable. Both of the series of Savage Apparel were created in response to numerous hours of carving small, finely detailed elements in wood and the tedious process of sewing and beading with perfection in mind.
Savage Apparel Series
All the pieces in both of these series were created without preconceived ideas, however with some of the pieces, aesthetic elements and goals were considered as the pieces progressed. In all of the works I was primarily responding to the materials on hand— sealskin, rawhide, beads, feathers, honeycomb paper, bees wax, baleen, claws, light, dried fish skin— all materials I had recently used in other projects. Although each piece was made using similar materials, they are all very unique.
Savage Apparel Series
An outrageously wild piece made of rawhide, rusty nails and a florescent light inspired the creation of the first series of Savage Apparel. Using a wire bait box as a point of departure I wrapped it in a piece of translucent wet rawhide and secured it with rusty nails, a railroad spike and large uneven stitches of coarse black and white nylon thread. I resisted cutting away the dried hair and flesh. As the piece progressed, I wanted to emphasize light and translucency and hoping to enhance this quality in the rawhide I placed a battery-operated light inside the form and to my amazement the hide glowed like ice. As I continued to work on other pieces in the second series I found my goal was to create works of “fine art” that encouraged the viewer to touch or pet the pieces. This response to art is always discouraged in museums and galleries and I thought it would be fun to solicit it. Sensuality and desire became the focus for those pieces lined and covered in beaver fur! My favorite piece is the one covered and lined with beaver fur and adorned with large bear claws. I find it to be a great juxtaposition that both invites touch and avoidance. Once the piece is opened it is almost impossible to keep from petting the interior with its luxurious long, soft, dark brown fur. And when it is closed it invites you to cradle it. It was the most difficult piece to ship off to the Eiteljorg Museum, and the most difficult piece to sell.
Savage Apparel Series: Corporate Baggage
CD: I am interested in the colors represented in Urban Dreams of Dei-Shu. You mention in your artist statement that this piece is in honor of both the women of the village of Dei-Shu and to the importance of the waters that surround your community. Can you describe the relationship between these concepts and the colors used?
TS: Enamored by the large window space approximately 20’h x 10’w x 5’ d, at the Bill Reid Gallery I was inspired to create an elegant work of art that would emphasize and enhance the natural light. The idea to use translucent organza fabric of red, gold, and copper, and a red neon piece was a response to the space as well as the narrative that inspired the creation of Urban Dreams.
Urban Dreams of Dei-Shu
The narrative, the desire to return home, required that I first identify specific symbolism to tell the story. I am not sure the progression of my decisions but an issue that tends to be overlooked is our connection as Indigenous peoples to the waters that have sustained us for centuries. “First peoples of the land” is how we are often defined, but the name Tlingit is telling as its translation in English means “People of the Tide.” Considering the significance of our name I became passionate about emphasizing the connection to the sea and began to design elements that would suggest life within the waters of the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Alaska, Canada and Washington. The waters of the Pacific have provided for Native communities for centuries and have fostered cultures that have similar histories, art, legends, and lifestyles. This is the connection I was referring to in the artist statement.
The decision to use warm colors for all the elements was inspired by an ancient Coho symbol that consists of a circular red form and several salmon. As a member of the Coho clan this symbol is employed to honor the women in my family, and in particular those who fed me stink heads in the smokehouse at Dei-Shu. The story of this symbol is incorporated in the artist statement for Urban Dreams. Copper organza and gold fabric were incorporated to compliment the red neon piece that represents the Coho symbol. However, throughout the construction process I realized that the copper fabric did not amplify the natural and neon light as I had hoped, therefore, I only created one sea form using copper fabric. The color copper has traditional significance as it represents wealth, and in this work can represent the wealth and great abundance of sea life in the Pacific Ocean.
Urban Dreams of Dei-Shu
To create a piece that is aesthetically cohesive I decided to use the colors red, gold and copper. It is a wonderful coincidence, however, that the window screens of Haida designs are blue and green. I am not responsible for this element in the window space as the director of the gallery had ordered the screens and by the time I installed they were adhered to the windows. I appreciated how they made the fabric forms of contrasting colors pop and when natural light moved through the space the blue and green screens provided the illusion of an underwater world.
CD: Do you think of yourself as a “Contemporary North American Indigenous Artist?” Do you think terms like that one are useful or not? Do you feel like there is a separation between contemporary indigenous artists and the rest of the art world as represented by mainstream art magazines, biennials, art fairs, etc.?
TS: I identify as a contemporary Tlingit artist although many do not know what the term “Tlingit” references. So, I may identify as a contemporary Alaska Native artist, but again it is often more applicable to use the term Native American. I hardly use the term Indigenous unless it is in the context of a statement that juxtaposes Western art and artists. As well as being Tlingit I am also a woman, but I prefer not to use this term as it may imply that I am a feminist, and I am not. All of these terms are cumbersome but one thing they have in common is the history of Western colonization. In this sense I often think that I belong to a category of artists who share this history – so you might say that I am a contemporary artist who possesses a colonized worldview. Can you place that in an efficient category or title? How about “Colonized Indigenous Artist?” It is too redundant. When creating art with the acknowledgment of this history and the impact of western colonization, does the work then represent defeat and the perpetuation of concepts that reaffirm victimization?
I find that these titles can be a hindrance or a blessing – depending on the situation. And as soon as I settle on a title it is challenged. In the past I was often confused when indigenous artists wished not to be labeled “Native American” but realized that it is not the rejection of one’s heritage or race but the restrictions that come with this title. Attached to this title is a long and very extensive history of oppression, exploitation and misrepresentation. Once in this box it is difficult to fight your way out. Acknowledging this title often means that your work will have an aesthetic that is easily linked to Native issues and/or styles of the past. If the work does not represent these aspects it is often rejected.
A benefit of carrying the title of “Native American Artist” is that you have many opportunities to exhibit your work alongside other artists who have been labeled “Native American,” which is a very generic term but nonetheless a label that has been institutionalized and is easily recognized by the mainstream. It is recognized, but definitely not understood! A trend that has lasted decades is the practice by curators, museum directors, academics and the like to lump us all into group shows. Although in some instances this endeavor makes a powerful statement, other times there is no statement that makes the exhibition cohesive other than the fact that it is a “Native American” exhibition. This dilutes the potency of individual work. My wish is that institutions and associated Native art advocates honor Native artists with solo exhibitions.
In response to your question concerning exclusion, I do believe that these generic titles do restrict our entrance into the mainstream. Many individual Native American artists have been recognized and are represented in major institutions, but in comparison to mainstream white artists entrance is limited and is often just a token gesture. Once again this relates to the fact that there is not a great deal of knowledge in the mainstream concerning Native American histories, most institutions prefer the romanticized new age Native or the Native of the Indian wars era. Many do not know about our contemporary victories in maintaining our place within contemporary societies. So does this mean that as an artist our responsibility is to educate the public? Where does one start? Will there be a context for understanding an isolated topic or social or political issue?
I must add that these responses reflect my experiences and observations and other Native American artist may have completely different opinions on the issues represented here. It seems that I tend to end my responses with questions – and so next year I may have new opinions and new questions that will be later challenged by other experiences. In the future I might even claim that I am simply an artist of the 21st Century!
The creation of Tanis Maria S’eiltin’s art is informed by a rich Tlingit heritage and a philosophy that is in constant flux. She was born into a family of artists; her mother, Maria Miller, was a well-known beader, skin-sewer and a Master weaver of Chilkat Robes. Her uncles carved poles and made silver jewelry. Tanis states that her “formal art training began at home.”
Interested in the opportunity to work with new mediums in academia she enrolled in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Resisting the requirement to focus on one medium, Tanis created jewelry, prints and large paper sculptures. However, it wasn’t until she was in graduate school at the University of Arizona in Tucson that her political voice and unique aesthetic sensibility culminated.
Statements of resistance and hope that reference the impact of Western colonization are evident in her installations, videos, prints, skin drums and a recent series of non-functional handbags titled “Savage Apparel.” Several of her art pieces have been exhibited and collected by major museums throughout the United States and Canada. The exhibition titled, “Ee wdoowata’w ag’e: Did They Rob You?” is one of her proudest contributions to the art world. She co-curated this show that included the work of seven Hawaiians and seven Native American/Native Alaskans. “Did They Rob You?” traveled to Alaska, Washington, New York and New Mexico. She is also a 2005 recipient of the prestigious Eiteljorg Fellowship from the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Tanis’ primary goal as an artist is to make art that matters; “I strive to create art that is concurrently beautiful and informative, that translates provocative messages that raise awareness and encourages dialogue.”
Urban Dreams of Dei-Shu
The small village of Dei-Shu, with its wood houses lined up shoulder to shoulder along the water’s edge, some with out-stretched legs above the crashing tides, can only be accessed through childhood memories. My earliest recollections are of grandmothers, aunties, mothers and I ambling down the beach to a small rickety smokehouse that sat precariously on rounded rocks. In the smokehouse we would feast on the fine delicacy of fermented salmon heads. Favorite parts of the silvery head were the oily gristle of the nose and the beautiful wing shaped bones of the salmon’s jaw. Sucking bones released the best flavors and the sounds elicited giggles followed by stories with quick punch lines, all shared in the mother tongue. Although I could not speak Tlingit I understood the moment and embraced the closeness.
Today stories of our smokehouse feasts are told in HUD houses located miles from the beach. The only prominent structure surviving in Dei-Shu is a large blue tribal house identifiable by the cedar Raven adorning its exterior. The house resides in isolation along a dusty gravel road that is a main thorough-fair for a neighboring town.
In commemoration of the women of Dei-Shu I have replicated in fabric, beads and neon, the waters that sustain all indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The red neon at the center of the installation is based on an ancient design that belongs to my great grandmother’s Coho clan. The broken circle, named See.eit, represents the story of Kaaksateen, a woman who insulted the Coho people and as a result was taken to the open waters of the ocean. On their journey they swam through a circular form of razor sharp elements. Several salmon perished and others received lacerations on their tails. It is believed that all Coho must swim through this circular form to return to their place of origin.