Students collaborate for a spectacular Native Art exhibit

Grace Bieber/ Sun Star Reporter
March 26, 2013

Seal gut shirt, Spirit Whistler mask, and Sugiaq headdress by Tonya Esmalika. Grace Bieber/Sun Star

Seal gut shirt, Spirit Whistler mask, and Sugiaq headdress by Tonya Esmalika. Grace Bieber/Sun Star

From Feb. through the end of Mar. the Native Art Center hosted an art exhibit including the work of Assistant Professor of Native Arts Da-ka-xeen Mehner and his students. The display features art from a variety of different styles and cultural backgrounds, and shows off the diverse talent of the students. Through pieces such as beadwork, mask carving and painting, students  demonstrate their ability to merge past and present techniques. Native Art is a tool for students to tell their stories and honor tradition.

Tonya Esmalika, a social work student with a minor in Alaska Native studies, has been involved with Native Art since she was about 6-years-old. Esmalika’s gallery pieces include a shirt made of material resembling seal gut, a headdress, which took over 60 hours to bead, and a birch mask with abalone eyes and a mouth piece in honor of her Chugach heritage.

Since there are few records of historical Chugach art Tonya used a variety of sources for inspiration including work in museums, pictures from other Aleutic groups, and feedback from elders and other students in the class.

Esmalika said the class is an opportunity for her to explore Native Arts and believes that anyone can be successful in the class with the right attitude. “We have a very good instructor here and with the fees you pay for the class you get  a lot of materials to work with. I don’t think you have to be a master before you start Native arts, I think all you need is passion and love, just put yourself out there,” she said.

Keeping Native Art alive is important to her because “these are items that cannot be bought in any store. They’re unique. I could never duplicate this top, every piece is an original work,” Esmalika said.

Erin “Ivalu” Gingrich, a Fine Arts student, submitted a variety of masks to the show. Gingrich’s pieces included a gray seal mask with beads streaming from it’s eyes, and a collaborative piece between her and her friend, Eric Hamar. “He carved the mask and I painted it, I’m really proud of how it turned out,” Gingrich said.  The squid mask is a combination of the traditional art of carving with a fresh twist of vibrant blue paint. The masks are mostly intended for decoration but could be worn by small children  for dance. The name “Ivalu” means “thread” or “sinew” in Inupiat. “My grandpa from Barrow gave it to me when I was 13 or 12. It’s a beautiful name I think.”

Students also displayed beadwork in glass cases outside the studio. Angela Johnson, a Biology student, decided to take up Native art as a hobby. In a workshop Angela Johnson learned to make a beaded pouch, traditionally used for storing fire making materials and medicinal herbs. Johnson plans to share her knowledge with  her mother, husband, and son when he gets older.“ We lost so much in the past that we’re trying to bring it back as much as possible. It’s really important that we pass it on to the next generation,” Angela Johnson said.

Marina Anderson, an Alaska Native studies student with a minor in Alaska Native Art also displayed her work in the exhibit. Anderson grew up on Prince of Wales Island where she was exposed to Native Art through the totem poles carved by villagers, including her master carver uncles. Anderson created her painting in honor of her father who was diagnosed with cancer. In the painting, The Haida healing hands surround her father’s hand in the middle. The name of her piece means “love and strength”.

Marina Anderson believes that Native Art is a form of cultural expression just as important as language or dance, “It’s a way for a lot of people who don’t want to express their culture through words to still help keep the culture alive. We have stories in all of our artwork. to keep the  stories going, we keep the artwork going and if you lose any link to your culture then you start to lose your entire culture.”

Marina Anderson said that although Native Art is constantly evolving it is important to find a balance. “Some people think that it should be strictly traditional, but every tradition starts somewhere and the art was always changing  from previous times just like now it’s always changing. As long as we stick to the basics, and just be respectful to everyone’s clans, that’s the part that will never change,” Anderson said.

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