Anthropologist blends linguistic studies with wearable art

By Kelsey Gobroski
Sun Star Contributor

An anthropologist and metalsmith has combined 17 years of cultural and linguistic study with a lifelong love of jewelry-making to produce a collection of Alaska Native culturally inspired jewelry pieces. In a slide show presentation at Schaible Auditorium last Friday, Joan Tenenbaum recounted the lifelong journey that led her to creating these pieces.

Tenenbaum works native Alaskan cultural elements into most of her jewelry designs. Ulu shapes, animals, natural landscapes, and traditional symbolism all find their way into her wearable art. She said she has been influenced by museum exhibits, as well as by her life as an anthropologist living in three Alaskan villages.

Soon after coming to Alaska from Columbia University, she moved to Nondalton, an Athabaskan village 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, to write a dictionary of the Dena’ina language. She was divided by her love of metalsmithing and her sense of obligation to her linguistic duties. Later, she would realize that she could combine the two disciplines, but she said that at the time she was conflicted. “I felt at the time like I was in a steel cage with the door open,” she said, explaining that the door was her dissertation. If she could just get through that door she would be free to practice her art full time. But she said she continued to be sidetracked even after she had finished in Nondalton.

Tenenbaum said her first village-inspired pieces came from her sense of not belonging.

By the time she settled into the Inupiaq Eskimo village of Shishmaref, near Nome, she was beginning to take her inspiration from the landforms around her. She brought her jewelry supplies with her and crafted several pieces that were influenced by Ear Mountain, south of the village in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

Tenenbaum’s third extended stopover was in the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Cherfornak, located 100 miles southwest of Bethel. Here, as in Shishmaref, she found her artistic muse in the closest mountain, this time a 381 foot peak called Tern Mountain located six miles away from Cherfornak. “Every morning I needed to gaze on [the mountain], needed reassurance of its mass,” Tenenbaum said.

Tenenbaum has also done pieces inspired by other subjects, such as one she made after Hurricane Katrina. “I have seen art to be such a constructive way to respond to tragedy and hardship,” she said.

But the bulk of her work continues to reflect the culture and the values of the indigenous people of Alaska. She explains that she was motivated to let her art speak for those people when she began to see knockoffs of Yup’ik masks being sold without any explanation of their cultural value. “I vowed that night to let my work be an advocate for the peoples I had lived with,” she said. According to Tenenbaum, when she returned to Chefornak with photos of her work, the residents said, “you understand us.”

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