Interview by Ronald Egger
Ronald Egger: In your artist statement you say you have become impatient with the “Indian Art World.” Can you describe what this world is and how you may or may not fit in?
Image of Silver Hand Logo, a program designed to verify that the object is created by a native artist. The Silver Hand Program mission is to promote authentic Alaska Native art made in the state exclusively by an individual Alaska Native artist. The seal indicates that an article on which it appears is created by hand in Alaska by an individual Alaska Native artist. A permit is awarded for two years from the date issued and must be renewed every two years to remain active.
Nicholas Galanin: What do you think about programs such as the Silver Hand? Why do we need to verify everything Indian with a number, card, or certificate? The general perception of Indian Art is very misleading. Indian Art is life, humanity and all that we may creatively perceive. My impatience with this scene comes from all that binds the term. The Indian Art World is as I understand (at the moment), my culture’s internal and external being which includes my life experiences on many different social layers. Being brought up both in and away from my indigenous culture I have experienced a very different perspective on my heritage than my great grandparents would have known. The generational spread that our cultural community encompasses moves far beyond a romantic ideal commonly associated with the term Indian Art. We are being culturally dishonest if we reject all that passes through our culture. Economics and cultural objects, curio and collector, Indians and museum, history and the present. I often like to unravel the things that irritate the Indian in me, putting them back on the shelf with new meaning, clarity or focus. As an artist that contributes to my culture, I feel immense gratitude knowing that I am able to give to something greater, this feeling of belonging is the Indian Art World.
RE: What is the “cultural awareness” that you hope to develop through your artwork as mentioned in your artist statement? I am particularly curious about the idea of increasing awareness for both non-Natives and Native people. Is there a difference in the needed kind of awareness for each of these groups?
Tsu Héidei Shugaxtutaan I
Video: 4 minute 36 sec. loop, performance by David Elsewhere
NG: Understanding the term culture is as difficult as defining the term. To become aware of this culture we must engage with it. The complexities of cultural growth and interaction create preconceived ideals, perspectives and viewpoints. Through action and creative risk taking, I, as an artist am able to partake in this cultural development. There are differences in every individual’s need for cultural awareness, the grouping or generalized terms, native, non-native, etc. are products of cultural cross roads.
RE: I like the idea of your work preserving your culture as you stated in your bio. Preserving is a heavy word and carries a lot of responsibility. It must be very satisfying to feel like your work is helping keep your culture alive. Do you think “traditional” Northwest Coast artists also feel a responsibility to keep the culture alive through their work? Your work is not only based on traditional Northwest Coast art, but also includes conceptual ideas and new forms as well. Do you think these contemporary aspects of your work add another layer to the preservation of your culture and its history?
What Have We Become? Vol. 5
Paper: 1000 pages containing text from Under Mount Saint Elias
5’’ x 9’’ x 4’’ 2006
NG: ”Traditional” is a term often misused in most indigenous scenes. While in New Zealand I noticed the Maori peoples eloquence with cultural representation through their second language, English. The preferred term was ‘customary’. To me, this term allows for more than one way of being. To preserve a cultures customs, whether it be language, politics, or the arts is very rewarding and necessary, just as crucial as growth and progress are. As a young artist, I was trained through a “traditional” master/apprentice form of education (including wood carving, jewelery and traditional tool making). This learning style allowed for me to learn more about both Tlingit history and art, a foundation I will continue to maintain. I felt it very difficult to express new ideas or experiences with today’s world through this generally conservative customary medium or visual aesthetic. This is where new cultural work comes in, works which offer a new form of visual communication and representation. This work is very important and gives voice to our generation, every generation has one, why neglect this?
RE: It’s very empowering to use re-appropriation in respect to Native culture as a tool in your work. Many aspects of Native culture have been appropriated by dominant society, and you have skillfully been able to use re-appropriation in multiple ways to address that issue. In the works ofThe Imaginary Indian Seriesyou re-worked Northwest Coast Native style masks that had been produced in Indonesian factories. InRaven and the First Immigrantyou took a famous Northwest Coast artist’s work and re-appropriate the carving by outsourcing the piece to a chainsaw artist to re-create. Is there anything that you would feel was inappropriate to re-appropriate both in your culture and outside of your culture? What have the reactions been from traditional carvers to your re-appropriations? Does their opinion matter to you?
Wood, wall paper, paint
27” x 67” x 6”
52.5” x 42.5” x 11” 2009
Raven and the First Immigrant
Redwood (chainsaw art)
6’.2” H x 4’ ft. W x 4’.3” D
NG: I enjoy engaging the viewer and presenting them with complex issues they might otherwise avoid. Giving voice to certain topics may irritate those who do not do their homework and take time to fully understand my body of work.
This image is a screen shot from public commentary on my online portfolio
If I feel something is inappropriate to work with then perhaps my idea is not fully developed. I enjoy the risk of creating, if there is no risk involved in the project then perhaps it’s a bit too homogenized. My Indigenous cultures opinion does matter as a lot of this work engages directly with indigenous peoples existence in today’s society. A problem that occurs with several existing generations of culture is the grey area or blind spots that one generation has not experienced or will not understand. When I create new cultural work with no customary visual language, context or medium, I run the risk of losing communication with the elder generations. Sometimes it is necessary to include some clues which may bridge this gap. It is empowering for me to create works which speak to humanity on a universal level.
RE: In your bio you talk a lot about the influences of your father and the Tlingit culture. Where does your mother and her side of the family fit into your cultural identity or in your artwork?
NG: Everywhere, my mother has been a huge support for all I have set out to do. I do not include her in the bio because my bio/resume deals mostly with my creative professional carreer. For the most part, the inclusion of my father speaks of my artistic training in the indigenous arts with him.
RE: What made you want to return to Sitka after traveling and going to school in so many different places?
NG: I love Sitka. I can’t pinpoint one reason, though being around family has a lot to do with it. I am also able to work well in isolation, something Sitka can provide during the quiet winter months.
RE: Looking over your resume I noticed that you had been included in a lot of Native related exhibitions—ones that either had Indigenous themes or that mostly included artists who are Native. What are your feelings about being in these types of exhibitions? I ask this question because you state in your artist statement:The viewer, collector, or curators’ definition will often convey more about themselves than that of the “Native Artist.” In the past I have struggled with this title, though I now embrace my position as a contemporary indigenous artist with belief that some forms of resistance often carry equal amounts of persistence.
NG: Yes, I have seen and participated in several group exhibits where the curator sets out to free the Indian artist from all that keeps him in his cage. I have nothing against these shows, everyone is welcome to particpate in culture (on some level). Its important that we look at ourselves from all angles and continue to move forward, this statement goes for those making, viewing, criticizing or curating the culture.
RE: Can you talk about your pieceThe Curtis Legacy?What is meant by using the word “Legacy” in the title? Is the word “legacy” referring to the continuing damage done by Curtis’ images, or is the legacy more about you making photographs in the same style? The images have a very loaded history both in the objectification of Native people and the female body.
The Curtis Legacy
2.5’ x 3’
NG: The work was created for a recent solo show titled “Oblique Drift”, and most of the work in this exhibition touches on the dark alley or side streets of our culture. The sideways wandering or wake left from the general direction of mainstream indigenous cultures ideal progression through time. ’The Curtis Legacy’ has upset many viewers, because the work has touched on a culture objectified, in this case through a camera lens. Ostentatious objectification of a commercial culture… contribution to cultural growth changes when personal economic benefits greatly outweigh all other aspects of cultural/community participation.
RE: I find your pieceTalking Totem Polesvery humorous. You show the viewer how the interpretation of Indigenous culture by dominant society through research can erase the original meaning of the totem poles by reducing them to texts. What was it like putting yourself in the position of a “foreign perspective?”
Talking Totem poles
Video: 30 minute loop with audio reading
NG: This was more familiar than foreign to me. While apprenticing with Tlingit artists, I also spent equal amounts of time devouring any literature I could find on my culture. During this time I realized that I need to think about who is writing this text, and from what perspective? Some journalists are gifted at capturing information and knowledge, others are good at pumping themselves into the work.
RE: tsu heidei shugaxtutaan 1 & 2 present the duality of a traditional dance paired with non-traditional music, and a contemporary dance paired with traditional music. What are some of the underlining themes in this work that someone outside of the culture might not understand immediately? It looks as though the traditional dancer is wearing a raven mask? I read that Tlingit culture is clan based, does that outfit/dance belong to a particular clan within Tlingit culture?
NG:This video series was a visual closing statement for a solo exhibit titled “What Have We Become?”. I use the translation of the song “We will again open up this container of wisdom that has been left in our care” as an opportunity to take this container (the culture) and open it creatively with a new conceptual voice that is not limited by boundaries, only when our culture is able to grow unrestrained and organically will we be able to pull from a highly reactive state of being. Yes, this is a Raven Mask, and done in a customary style of Tlingit dancing though the song is public domain.
RE: In your bio and resume you have your cultural background listed as Tlingit/Aleut. How important is it for people viewing your work to know about your cultural background? Have you ever thought about what type of work you would make if you didn’t draw inspiration from the native side of your heritage?
NG: I like the idea of works that speak solely to humanity, my blank book faces from the ‘What Have We Become?’ series were created with no real leads on cultural context and are a good example of this liberation. Other works deal directly with cultural issues. I am not too concerned with the background information of my ethnicity, though I feel a need to contribute to my culture as I feel it has offered me so much.
RE: Do you think of yourself as a “Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists?” Do you think terms like that one are useful or not? Do you feel like there is a separationbetween contemporary indigenous artists and the rest of the art world as represented by mainstream art magazines, biennials, art fairs, etc.?
6’ x 4’ x 2.5’
NG: I am a Contemporary Indigenous Artist, if I told you any different I would be denying my Tlingit/Aleut history. If I spun clay pots and painted flowers on them to sell at the farmers market, I would still be a Tlingit/Aleut artist. Spinning pots on the weekend might be more of therapeutic craft then a political contribution to cultural arts movement, but I wouldn’t be wrong to define my self by my heritage. How far can we bend this term “Native Artist”? We have non-natives selling and making, teaching and writing about being Indian. This cultural ideal or definition of culture causes great political turmoil and can be traced to topics such as government blood quantum and the future generations of indigeneity. I believe my work is more important than the term which describes it, again, these terms tell you more about the person applying it. I am intrigued by the art world as a whole and have nothing negative to say about her. Negativity takes way too much time and energy, I would like to let my work speak for itself on such topics. We wrestle with words.
RE: Can you recommend another artist that we should interview for this blog in the future?
NG: Skeena Reece, Tania Willard, Peter Morin, Brad Kahlhamer and many many more… Thank you, I look forward to reading all of the other interviews!
Artist Statement 2010
I work with concepts, the medium follows. In the business of this “Indian Art World” I have become impatient with the institutional prescription and its monolithic attempt to define culture as it unfolds. Native American Art can not be commonly defined as our work moves freely through time. The viewer, collector, or curators’ definition will often convey more about themselves than that of the “Native Artist”. In the past I have struggled with this title, though I now embrace my position as a contemporary indigenous artist with belief that some forms of resistance often carry equal amounts of persistence. My current collection of work presents visual experiences in hope of inspiring creative dialogue with the viewer. I work with an intention to contribute towards contemporary cultural development. Through education and creative risk taking I hope to progress cultural awareness both in and out of this Indigenous world.