One of the most revealing elements of the latest show at Peter Blum Gallery (through March 24) is not what you see but what you hear. I went on a weekday shortly after the January 24th opening of Nicholas Galanin, the increasingly well-known Tlingit artist. One of the first things I heard was a White woman say “We’d love to buy the whole set, but with shipping and everything, I think we’ll wait.”
She was referring to photos of faux “Native Alaskan” masks titled “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” from 2015, and a sculpture “Man (Indian)” from the following year. The title comes from a 1892 speech at George Mason University by a Capt. Richard H. Pratt charmingly titled “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man.”
This insouciant talk of ownership isn’t so surprising: New York is full of rich people who want to fill their empty lives with something artsy. But it startled to me to think of Galanin’s work now enmeshed within this market. I first saw his photograph “Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter,” at the Anchorage Museum in 2015. More of his work appeared around galleries and cultural centers, but I never heard anyone talk about owning one of the pieces. It was like hearing someone talk about a puppy from the pound smiling and “choosing” them: sweet and questionable.
I wondered, then, which pieces of Galanin’s can withstand the commoditization from the glamorous art world that tosses artists into the Procrustean bed of millionaires. Which pieces can cling to their nature so closely that even under White scrutiny they will retain their force of political and aesthetic self-definition?
For me, three series accomplish this: the masks, the escape/return maps, and the monoprints.
“Architecture of return, escape (Metropolitan Museum of Art)” uses deer hide as a canvas with blue pigment, immediately hinting of blueprints and the larger plans they represent. I first was struck by how it seemed like a striated map of a ruined city. I later read that it’s a literal map of the “Art of Native America” section at the Met. In using this map, Galanin calls for the escape (i.e. return) of these objects to their original homes.
It’s one of the most skillfully political artworks I have encountered in the past year, probably since “White Man on a Pedestal” by Doreen Gardner and Kenya (Robinson), which helped bring the stature of J. Marion Sims down.
The gallery hosted two groups of monoprints. The first from 2018 is Let Them Enter Dancing and Showing Their Faces. Each is, especially Shaman, a beautiful use of negative space. None of the strokes seem to touch, as if in a spindle configuration, a floating that prevents solidification, and thus capture. The group from last year is Everything We’ve Ever Been, Everything We Are Right Now. It is similarly diaphanous, an impressive effect considering the relative rigidity of monoprinting.
Why did these series, along with the masks, leave me with a sense of tragedy, responsibility, and activism?
I think the masks were so powerful because they operated outside of the grip of “White” America. There was no represented “Indian” — Galanin used fake masks. Yet there were traces of the people who led to that mask. And when those traces were brutalized through appropriation (violence) then into shards, as the photos showed, then reassembled into a forlorn sculpture, I felt that Native American’s history with White noise was represented, but Native Americans themselves were not so visible as to cohere into palatable, representative figure for a White gaze. Since Galanin focuses on his heritage only, there is no room for repurposing, for someone to say “how sad” shrug and move on.
The display escaped this sort of casual interpretation of White liberalism. While the maps and faces and masks don’t point to an “Indian,” don’t identify an “Indian,” the curation shows the escape cross dimensions: from a photo, from the photo of a mask, to a photo of a destroyed mask, to a sculpture of the destroyed mask, there’s the sense of one alluding capture while in the art gallery, of a Native sensibility entering a White space and avoiding the solidification of movement and thus capture by White noise.
The masks don’t engage with “American” images. There’s no room for relational superiority. The masks take center stage. The history of subjection by White Americans is seen in each dehydrated hair, in the shattering of a mask that in sculpture becomes a face. But the story of destruction, the strange recombined beauty in the aftermath of generational scars, is told by the materials alone.
Galanin’s work came to mind when I passed this Leon Trotsky quote:
“Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself.”Tweet
As Galanin comments on the exhibition title, Carry a Song / Disrupt an Anthem:
“To carry the songs of indigenous people, to carry the songs of the land, is inherently disruptive of the national anthem.”Tweet
At times, the most radical thing you can do is insist on your ordinary existence. The above series seem the most urgent and true to themselves. They escape a neocolonial need for purchase.
The pieces that moved me less were ones that operated within “White” America. The polar bear flag easily resonates with received ideas for many White Americans. The carved books comes from federal records of Native Alaskans. A print called Ism No.1 didn’t move me much. While I liked all these works, they seemed focused on documentation, more so than skilled activism. It also seemed like other contemporary work I’ve seen: less Galanin, more what White people might expect of a Native artist.
How does one see art outside a Western prism? The first time I visited Peter Blum, I kept comparing Galanin’s pieces to various archetypes of what I will call White-y Art.
Seeing I Think It Goes Like This (Gold) made me think of Robert Smithson’s Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis) at Dia Foundation. I felt like a caricatured art student when de Kooning’s Woman I interfered with my perception of Let Them Enter Dancing and Showing Their Faces: Mouse
Yet I and the other White person liked the masks best. I liked it because it eluded a White need for a victim, resisted that Native Americans should live forever in tragedy, it honored the tragedy of history without sinking from the horror, and it was aesthetically a unique accomplishment. What were the other lady’s reasons? Who can tell — maybe she was buying it for a museum and all my theories are for naught. But considering that she said “I’m not trying to get a discount, I hate when people try to get a discount,” my misgivings keep spinning.
The first time I saw the show, I didn’t spend much time with “Things Are Looking Native, Natives Looking Whiter” (2012). That was mostly to get away from the wealthy visitor, but also because I felt that I “got” the image when I saw it at Anchorage Museum. It seemed somehow less effective in New York, where people are quicker to call it as they see it. Despite the artist Merritt Johnson’s catalog description as the piece simply showing two woman, it’s clear that one is Carrie Fisher, the other is “nameless.”
The second time was quieter so I looked at the image more. If you look at it more, you’ll find that Johnson is right: the two women become one, nameless entity. If anything, the heaviness of the photo grows as the recognition of so many erased histories comes into play, as well as the total erasure of Hopi contributions. Most people (yours truly) would have no idea that George Lucas took inspiration (stole?) from George Curtis photos of Hopi women to make Carrie Fisher’s famous hairstyle. For most people, that hairstyle is just an original, made by White people as seen in “Star Wars.”
What a sad lie, a pernicious one that bolsters White supremacy. If you stare at this image longer, knowing the history here, you grow more and more disturbed at the injustice. But Galanin is consciousness-raising here. The more recent work not only raises awareness, but also delivers a plan of action: redress (the maps); remembrance (the masks); resilience and joy (the monoprints). The newer works contemplate and strategize. The older works used more polemic and absurdity.
Who will buy White Noise, American Prayer Rug (2020)? That brilliant piece needs to be discussed another time. But I’m pleased to feel that it’s politically and aesthetically astute to survive the most unforgiving lobby of any White buyer, though I certainly hope it can end up in a museum, or some cultural center where you won’t hear people asking “How much?