A new exhibit opening at the University of Alaska Museum of the North features multimedia visuals created by contemporary artists to explore and respond to Alaska’s history of colonization. A collaboration of more than 30 diverse Alaska artists, both Native and non-Native, “Decolonizing Alaska” introduces new ideas around Alaska culture.
Curator Asia Freeman of the Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer said the featured artists move beyond stereotypes to express ideas about identity separate from those that permeate popular culture.
“’Decolonizing Alaska’ celebrates artists who face the future as colorful, resilient inventors, redefining Alaska art on their own terms,” Freeman said. “These artists are shaping their own stories, while challenging and expanding historic definitions of Alaska art. This exhibit is not a comprehensive representation of Alaska art and/or artists addressing decolonization. It is an exhibit of artists who self-identify with this theme.”
Aldona Jonaitis, director of the UA Museum of the North, said that decolonization in museums often describes efforts by indigenous people to determine how their own cultures are represented.
“Today many museums are working collaboratively with Native groups, offering space for individuals to describe indigenous life, history and culture,” Jonaitis said. “These expressions frequently assume a political stance that challenges the consequences of colonization.”
Jonaitis said visitors can be part of this decolonizing project by listening to, learning about and understanding what these Alaska artists express in their artworks and accompanying statements. She also pointed to past efforts by the museum to attempt to decolonize exhibits, including displays of Native artworks interpreted by the artists themselves rather than non-Native “experts.”
One of the exhibit’s featured artists, Linda Infante Lyons, said her ancestors are of Russian and Alutiiq heritage. Rediscovering culture and recovering lost religious icons are important steps in her decolonization process.
“In my painting, I replace the symbolic elements of a Russian Orthodox icon with those of the Alutiiq people,” she said. “The Christian Madonna becomes the Alutiiq. I am a living example of the melding of two cultures, the Native and the colonizer. In this effort to represent the decolonization of Alaska, I acknowledge the assimilated icons of the colonizer, yet bring forth, as equals, the spiritual symbols of my Native ancestors.”
The exhibition is sponsored by Bunnell Street Arts Center and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rasmuson Foundation, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and the CIRI Foundation. It has been displayed at a variety of museums in Alaska and at the Corcoran School of Art and Design at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
IMAGE: Linda Infante Lyons, “St. Katherine of Karluk,” oil on canvas, 2016