Museum abandons boundaries all together

Artist Edgar Heap of Birds stands before his piece "Dead Indian Stories" on display in the "Without Boundaries" exhibit. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Artist Edgar Heap of Birds stands before his piece “Dead Indian Stories” on display in the “Without Boundaries” exhibit. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

A new exhibit at the Anchorage Museum brings some of the world’s top artists together for a provocative commentary on indigenous identity and contemporary art. “Without Boundaries: Visual Conversations,” which opened Friday, is an ambitious effort in more ways than one.

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James Luna has been a critically acclaimed performance artist for decades. Standing in front of a photo installation the day of the opening, he read out a spoken-word piece specific to Alaska.

“This is called ‘Make America Red Again,'” Luna began, launching into a wry satire of this year’s presidential campaign, with regular nods to the history of colonization.

“We’re gonna build some beautiful walls. We’re gonna build walls around our villages, we’re gonna build walls around our sacred sites, we’re gonna build a wall around Mount Denali,” Luna continued. “You know who’s gonna pay for it? You white people are gonna pay for it, you see, because these walls are gonna keep you out.”

The short speech flips the rhetoric on immigration and sovereignty. By the end, Luna is telling recent migrants from abroad that in this newly reclaimed Alaska that they’re welcomed to stick around.

“You can stay and you can speak your languages freely, you can practice your religions without fear, you can wear your tribal dress. You’re free to be cultural, because isn’t that what they took away from us Indians?” Luna asked, ending the piece.

Luna’s work provokes, but it doesn’t attack. Some of the pieces from 12 artists working locally in Alaska to as far as Greenland and Oklahoma take a much more assertive and critical stance about indigenous identity and the continuing harm done to native communities.

A large photo by Canadian artist Barry Pottle called “Awareness #2” from a larger series shows the “Eskimo Identification tags” issued by the Canadian government starting in the 40s.

A piece by the renown American artist and educator Charlene Teters called “The Smile” points to the disappointing politics of representation for native people in the 21st century.

The multi-disciplinary collections breaks boundaries in other ways, as well, with public works spilling onto the museum’s lawn and sidewalks. For Edgar Heap of Birds, who has pieces both inside and outside, breaking down the art-world’s hierarchies is part of the work itself.

Heap of Birds jabs at the hypocrisies in the treatment of Native American tribes in a work called “Dead Indian Stories,” part of a series.

On the wall are 16 red rectangular lithographs, each with six words scrawled from top to bottom. They read like sentence fragments, but according to Heap of Birds each has an internal logic. One reads “SAND CREEK WASHITA RIVER SANDY HOOK.”

“Those were all sights where children were murdered,” Heap of Birds explained. “Sand Creek was a massacre with Cheyenne children, Washita River was a massacre with Cheyenne children, Sandy Hook was a massacre with kindergartners in Connecticut.”

“In America we would be more mournful of the ones in Connecticut. We don’t really care about the ones in Oklahoma,” Heap of Birds continued. “My point is that we need to mourn all the children’s deaths.”

Some of the works are difficult to decipher on their own. The exhibit’s catalog is more than 50 pages, and includes three essays about the themes running through the works, along with artists statements that help add context.

“I got to cherry-pick whatever I wanted,” laughed Sonya Kelliher-Combs, the exhibit’s curator. She reached out to some of the artists requesting photos of available works, while others were commissioned specifically for the exhibition.

The pieces were selected to align with a series of structured  conversations the museum’s sponsored for more than a year both in Alaska and abroad, and which will continue through December. Kelliher-Combs and others brought together artists, curators, and thinkers to discuss contemporary views on complicated subjects like the commodification of native art, decolonization, and representation. And those conversations are the thread running through the exhibit.

“The one commonality is that these are all indigenous or Native American or First Nations — whatever you want to call us — individuals,” Kelliher-Combs said, “and they’re all talking about different issues that are important to native people.”

On top of having provocative individual works that may needle some patrons, “Without Boundaries” is ambitious for its attempt to put the Anchorage Museum front and center on international conversations about contemporary art and its intersection with indigenous politics. The artists represented in the show have had works in the most elite galleries, exhibitions, and museums around the world, right alongside community-engagement projects and advocacy that has made many of them fixtures of political debates and academic books. Even the process of using curated conversations as the basis for an exhibit in Alaska is unconventional in itself.

“These artists are showing all over the world,” Kelliher-Combs said, adding that its a group pushing the boundaries of what’s been considered indigenous art.

“They have strong voices and clear messages to be heard.”

Without Boundaries is at the Anchorage Museum through February.