‘True North’ Showcases Alaskan Contemporary Art at Anchorage Museum

It’s been three years in the making and contains works by more than 40 artists from Northern Countries. The Exhibit ‘True North’ opened at the Anchorage Museum in May. KSKA’s Daysha Eaton takes us inside the show which attempts to de-romanticize the North.

When you think of Alaskan Art, maybe you think of fine art paintings by Sydney Laurence, Eustace Ziegler or Fred Machetanz. Or maybe traditional Alaska Native totem poles, masks or baskets come to mind. Now artists in Alaska, and throughout the North, are creating a different kind of work. And, if you want to check it out, your compass will lead you to the third floor of the Anchorage museum.

The artists hail from Iceland, Scandinavia, Canada, Russia and Alaska, of course. Ryan Romer lives in Anchorage and is originally from Bethel. His photographs depict how modern objects and practices have been incorporated into traditional Alaska Native life. Romer photographed typical village scenes in Bethel in a unique way.

“It is a black and white photo image using 120 film. And the reason I used 120 film is becasuse it gives, it captures what I’m looking at and produces it in such a nostalgic way it gives it that hazy 50-year-old, 100-year-old look,” Romer said.

By Ana Rewakowicz, "The Cloud," mixed media installation, 2011. This interactive work lets museum visitors push water from the bottles to the cloud, making the cloud descend or ascend.

One photo, ‘Healing the Believers’ shows two Native men praying Evangelical style for two elders heading to the city for assisted living.

“To me that captures the essence of living two lifestyles. Like what is going on in our culture as spiritual healers and believers colliding with westernized religion. I capture a lot of that because it’s the thought process of living to lifestyles like that is it really informs the way that our culture is thinking and making decisions,” Romer said.

Another of Romer’s photos captures a barber chair sitting at an abandoned fish camp along the Kuskokwim River. He calls it ‘Cut & Dry’.

“It’s that kind of imagery that is seen all along rural Alaska. Because you know people bring stuff in to make life easier to live and when it’d done being used they just leave it where it sits,” he said.

Another Alaska artist Michael Conti, who teaches photography at University of Alaska, Anchorage, produced videos that explore the absurdity of Alaskan masculinity and machismo against the vast and wild landscape. Conti took videos of himself doing typical Alaskan male activities, like hockey and other outdoor pursuits.

“I came up here from Pennsylvania about 18 years ago. And I came up for adventure and the Jack London thing and Mountains and fish and all this great stuff. My videos sort of became a parody of that – and this idea of taking things to the extreme, which me and a lot of my friends did or used to do or still do, you know skiing off of this or climbing up that,” Conti said.

In one video Conti lifts up a large ball of ice, in a bleak winter landscape, carrying it off screen only to then have it reemerge exactly where it was.

“There’s like a performance that happens where I attempt to juggle and balance and do different kind of circus tricks that all fail and then walk away at the end in frustration. So there’s this defeat that consistently happens in this video, most of the time, but he keeps trying,” he said.

He loops the video in such a way that the figure comes in and does the exact same thing, again and again.

Curator Julie Decker put together the ‘True North’ exhibit. The show, she explains, turns the romantic view of the north on its head and makes our region the center of the globe.

“We’re ground zero for things like climate change, resource development, and now I think there’s an understanding that the North is a critical place in determining all kinds of issues of sustainability and the environment,” Decker said.

The artists dissect critical issues through depictions of environmental, psychological and societal challenges the region faces today. One of the most striking pieces in the show is from Canadian artist Ana Rewakowicz. Her giant cloud made of rip stop material is suspended from the ceiling to the right of the entryway to the gallery. It is a take on our natural world becoming more and more artificial. A photograph by Sarah Anne Johnson, also Canadian, is thought provoking and disturbing. Her image of the Arctic Circle tundra landscape is altered with photo spotting and acrylic inks to include a giant black monolith, exploring the potential impact of humans on the environment as they populate more and more remote places.

“They’re very unique observers and researchers of what’s now and what the real issues are. So a lot of these artists spent months in the arctic studying the land the people the issues, in a way that most of us don’t get to,” Decker said about the artists.

And through their eyes, she believes we can see glimpse the North in brand new ways. The contemporary works in the show look beyond the traditional and the veneer of beauty and grandeur that are often associated with Northern Art.

Instead the artists look deeper at our evolving relationship to Northern places, not only as explorers and as colonizers, but as a part of them. You can see ‘True North’ for yourself through September 9th at the Anchorage Museum.

They’ll be a special grand opening reception for the ‘True North’ exhibit on Friday June 1, as part of the ‘First Friday’ events. The reception runs from 6-9pm and includes performance art, a live band and a lecture. To learn more about the show, go to www.anchoragemuseum.org.

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Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.