Finding My Song at the Anchorage Museum

It was approaching the third week of heavy winds and rain outside the Anchorage Museum as I strolled through their canary yellow lobby on my way to “Finding My Song.” Artist Da-ka-xeen Mehner has combined his Native and European heritages to produce a show packed with color, texture and fun along with a poignant message. It’s clear Mehner understands Tlingit craft and twenty-first century Eurocentric Conceptualism.

Raised in Alaska’s Tlingit and Caucasian cultures, each of which has been dominant at times and thus left their anthropological marks, both good and bad, Mehner now teaches Native Arts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He holds degrees from the University of New Mexico, The Institute of American Indian Arts as well as the University of Alaska.

The show is divided into three sections but the museum-goer will find all parts connect as the exhibition is about preserving a Tlingit culture that finds itself cohabiting in the white man’s world.  However, the viewer will find no remorse in this show.  Through his art, Mehner reminds his audience to think about the past while enjoying contemporary Native creativity as he freely mixes in Eurocentric genres, offering up old narratives freshly retold.

Double Pointed Daggers and Soap Bar. Photo by Jean Bundy.

In the first section, I found myself encircled by double-pointed daggers, evoking those originally made for warfare. Mehner’s extra-large daggers, made from rusted metal, appeared to sink, shrink and rise again as my eyes circulated and landed on every dagger point.  Mehner told me simple household words like “thank you” are painted faintly on the shafts. Upon further examination, I found a few, sometimes the only Tlingit words a family today might have picked up.

Twenty-first century art-speak invites viewers to put forth their own thoughts about a piece, often ignoring the creator’s ideas.  I thought of Stonehenge and envisioned being surrounded by evil-doers.  Then again, maybe the figures, whoop daggers, were playing some sort of vertical hide and seek.   Using one culture to reach out and save another might be one of the themes of this show.

The three sections are separated by two partitions shaped like the front of a clan house, now giant video screens. One screen has a large still image of Mehner with a bar of laundry soap shoved into his mouth. Here, Mehner’s self-portrait is much like those of artist Catharine Opie, with her in-your-face oversized photography that exposes every flaw of a person’s anatomy.  Mehner references the horrible experience his grandmother remembered. Native children were punished  when speaking their native tongue in missionary schools that insisted English be spoken or else.

When I spoke on the phone to Mehner, he said this soap bar image is one of the most talked about themes and graciously welcomed viewers who told their own stories about the Fels Naphtha product. As a child I would spend summers at my grandparent’s home on Martha’s Vineyard, routinely playing in poison ivy. I could still smell that yellow ochre bar being rubbed on my skin to diminish itching.

The second screen holds a looping video showing contemporary Native dancing against traditional Tlingit red and black patterning. The hazy video of reds, blacks and yellows looked as if it was engulfed by flames.  Perhaps this blurred image   shows how older generations are being replaced just as old Tlingit traditions are being updated for contemporary celebrations. Between the clan house screens on the gallery floor is another looping video of a drum being played.  A drum stick occasionally appears and recedes but makes no sound.

Clan House with Dancers. Photo by Jean Bundy.

Like a Carl Andre checkerboard, found on most contemporary museum floors, the viewer is presented with a choice, to walk on the image or obey Eurocentric bureaucracy and walk around the piece. Again the museum-goer may superimpose emotions or absorb Mehner’s possible theme about a silent drum as a trope for lost Tlingit culture. Visitors can attempt to stomp out the drum-video or culture but are not in control of its on/off switch.  The head of the drum remains throughout in sharp focus with its red and black mythical imagery–proof of cultural survival.

The third and perhaps most daunting section is a wall piece with eighteen skin drums in alternating rows of threes and twos. Three dimensional self-portraits of Mehner emerge from the drum heads that light up and dim in concert with the artist’s voice performing a chant that permeates all three sections.  Mehner says the song is about the Killer Whale Clan migrating to Chilkat or Sitka after finding themselves either over or under a glacier. Multiple Mehner heads emerging from drums makes him appear almost mystical. This shaman-esque Mehner contrasts with the somewhat commercial Catharine Opie-esque Mehner: two ways cultures have approached portraiture, both used by the artist to get out the Tlingit message.

Mehner Emerging from Drum Head. Photo by Jean Bundy.

Mehner’s splicing of his cultures might  be obvious to anyone who has taken  an  art history class where students learn how to dialogue with the artist who left his trace on the art piece. Themes about who is the “self” versus who is the “other” when confronting a work and its message are intriguing to art aficionados but most likely remain invisible to those passing through a gallery on their way to the café or gift shop.  I watched as late summer tourists wandered through the exhibition, bewilderment on their faces. I attempted to engage an Australian family about similarities in indigenous cultures while their two teens whined.

Mehner’s cultural dual citizenship keeps the viewer guessing who is the real “self” and “other,” much like moving pieces on a game board. “Finding My Song” had no brochures to take away for later contemplation and the wall placard offered   minimal explanations, not even the tale of the Killer Whale Clan. One of the highlights of the museum’s Chipperfield wing is the Smithsonian research center where antique masks and mukluks mix with monitors showing contemporary Native lifestyles.

Although the Smithsonian exhibits are arranged in a Eurocentric way similar to many natural history museums, it would have been interesting to suggest to visitors strolling through Mehner’s show that they might visit the museum’s permanent Native collections and compare different ways of respectfully keeping cultures alive. Imagine the conversations and dialogues that could ensue as visitors rolled their luggage through the security at the airport.

Finding My Song by Da-Ka-xeen Mehner is on view at the Anchorage Museum Sept 7 – Nov 11, 2012