Art shifts its nature from century to century. The philosophy of art—aesthetics—can send people trying to understand its meaning off the rail. Contemporary native art and design incorporates lessons of the past while including modern aspects. It is important for Alaska Native artists to look to the past for guidance, possibly in an attempt to gain a similar mindset as their elders. The landscape surrounding the native peoples has not changed drastically—that is unless they live in close proximity to an area dominated by industry. Subsistence remains part of villagers’ lives, but the technologies and tools used to attain resources has certainly changed.

Just as these changes have altered their everyday lives, it has altered the way Alaska Natives make their art. The description of “(Re)Emergence: Contemporary Native Art and Design” at the Anchorage Museum states, “Rural areas of Alaska are no longer isolated as they once were. Artists have access to new ideas, new materials, new technologies and the larger, international art world. Contemporary Native artists creatively transcend traditional media while embracing the past and initiating cultural renewal.”

Art Photography is a major change, as Native elders had no access to the technology even when it was becoming commonplace with urban, American society. I wonder what Alaska Natives of the past would have thought about photography. Not just as a magical device capable of capturing moments in time, but if they were able to understand photos would they be able to accept it as an art medium. Art is in the eyes of the beholder, and a photo can hold artistic merit. There is no lore or mythos, however, behind a simple landscape photo. New ways of incorporating the medium are very important to contemporary Native artists.

Take Erica Lord’s two color photographs on display at the Anchorage Museum for example. “Blood Quantum (1/4 + 1/16 = 5/16)” and “Enrollment Number 11-337-07463-04-01” are not typical photographs. Two arms stretched out in Biblical fashion, numerals tattooed across each of the forearms. “Blood Quantum” conveys that while interpretation of the natural world has changed humans still contain spiritual aspects. They have a given amount momentum, and the quantity of energy an individual holds is not affected by those uncontrollable changes of the world. In contrast, “Enrollment Number” is representative of the part of the individual that cannot help but become trapped by an overbearing force. Flesh, spirit and energy are subdued by being enrolled in a modern system. Villages and villagers are now numbers in a sea of political regulation… Or maybe not. Having never been to a village I cannot comment on the reality of rural life. Overcrowded schools and high rates of suicide must weigh heavy on the residents minds. The system does not treat them well. This much I know.

Erica says of her photos, “My art explores the next wave of cultural examination, an evolution of new ways to demonstrate cultural identity beyond the polar ideas that exist within a strictly two-worlds discourse.” To which the Anchorage museum concludes, “Contemporary thought on tradition and being Native merge with complexities of self and the present.”

Another piece that adheres to the theme of present and past is Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner’s “My Right-of-Way, Summer.” The large photograph is a mixture of a number of the previously mentioned themes. Buckets of blueberries straddle either side of the frame (subsistence), scraps of rusted metals filling many containers occupy the center of the piece (present) and a simple photograph of a dirt road sits dead center (nature). The Native artist’s life now consists of all these aspects. Alaska Natives live off the land, use modern tools and soak in a beautiful surrounding. This is very detached from the life residents of Anchorage and Fairbanks. Locals of these two vastly different landscapes contribute to their stability. Art, though important, is pushed aside, but without these Native examples I would have never contemplated these societal issues.

Would you be able to live off the land?

Would you find time for art in a demanding subsistence-style setting?

Is nature itself art?

How can local Alaska Native artists be supported?