‘Kill the Indian’ challenges artistic boundaries in Alaska

“Kill the Indian, Save the Man” is the name of a provocative new exhibit at the Anchorage Museum by Sitka-based artist Nicholas Galanin–one of three to recently open. Each show is strong on its own, but together the three exhibits explore what modern art means today in Alaska.

Nicholas Galanin, left, with his collaborator Nep Sidhu standing beside a piece in the "Kill The Indian, Save The Man" exhibit. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
Nicholas Galanin, right, with his collaborator Nep Sidhu standing beside a piece in the “Kill The Indian, Save The Man” exhibit. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

Download Audio

A few hours before his first solo show at the museum was set to start, Galanin walked past workmen and collaborators putting the final touches on an array of installations, ranging from a performance piece to a taxidermic polar bear.

He stopped in front of a multidisciplinary piece called “A Supple Plunder.” A projector shows slow-motion footage of a bullet ripping through ballistic gel. Beneath are nine clear human torsos set to be be stacked on pedestals like classical busts.

“Unanagan men were bound together–12 were bound together and shot to see how far the bullet would penetrate,” Galanin said. “Nine dropped.”

The incident is cited as part of the atrocities during Russian colonization in the Aleutian islands in the 1760s.

Galanin’s collaborator on the piece was his brother Jerrod, who said it was an emotional experience recreating the grim history the work draws from in the artistic process.

“We set up all nine of these in a line and we took a shot. It was exciting. I think we even laughed,” he said. “It’s easy to do that with a torso without any head. And I can only imagine the Russian that did this probably laughed too and thought it was funny. And I don’t understand that. I don’t know how you can get to that point where you can do that.”

The idea of having collaborators in a solo-show is just one of the confounding gestures Galanin and his partners weave into the exhibit, which has been in the works for about a year. All together, the pieces are an arresting mix of conceptual criticism, technical finesse, and beauty that verges at times on the grotesque. One of Galanin’s co-creators, interdisciplinary artist Nep Sidhu, sees all the works bound together by the show’s title and theme.

“Hence the idea of ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man’–it’s an impossible notion.”

Sidhu and Galanin are both part of Black Constellation, a collective of artists stretching across the West Coast and parts of Canada. Together the artists dressed four mannequins in an opulent but unsettling mix of garments. One wears a Chilkat robe over a cascade of winter jackets–a comment Sidhu says, on the epidemic of missing indigenous women in Canada.

“Looking at a lot of missing-persons reports, you would often come across the one thing that they had in common,” Sidhu said, “winter jackets. You know, ‘Last seen wearing a red winter parka.’ Winter jackets, over and over.”

Using traditional and indigenous artistic forms like a Chilkat robe to make a statement about the present is hardly revolutionary. But the Anchorage Museum is taking big steps to collapse any distinction between those traditional forms and Modern art as its long been curated in formal spaces.

“I think those boundaries feel very arbitrary now,” said Julie Decker, the museum’s director. “Putting all the voices together and saying ‘this is Alaska’s media, and these are the arts that are working here,’ feels better.”

Decker stood in front of works that are part of the the new All-Alaska Biennial, a film projected on a wall behind her, and a wood carving ringed in feathers to her front.

Calling the Biennial new isn’t quite accurate. It was created by combining two shows that for decades have been distinct. In the past, the All Alaska Juried Exhibition was for so-called Modern artworks like formal painting and sculpture, and on alternate years the Earth, Fire, and Fibre show assembled masterworks from so-called Traditional forms like weaving and ceramics. But the museum is experimenting in how it sees and supports a shifting definition of “modern” within the arts.

“I think art is changing, the way we define media is changing, and all artists are working and experimenting in a lot of different forms,” Decker said. “This is a survey of contemporary art of this place at this time.”

The two shows, plus another solo exhibit, “Stick and Puck,” by Anchorage artist Mike Conti that looks critically at the culture around ice hockey are all on display at the museum through April 10th.

Correction: An earlier headline to for this article incorrectly used the word “savage” in place of “Indian.” Alaska Public Media and reporter Zachariah Hughes sincerely regret the error.