On a recent trip to Phoenix, Arizona for the annual American Alliance for Museums convention, I was able to visit the Heard Museum in downtown. The Heard Museum offers one of the largest spaces in the country dedicated solely to Native American art. Since its founding in 1929, the museum has been dedicated to the advancement of American Indian art, presenting their stories from a first-point perspective, as well as showcasing a massive permanent collection of traditional artifacts. Through this mission, the Heard Museum has provided visitors with a distinctive perspective from the Native populations of the United States, and specifically those of the Southwest.
Among their stunning permanent collections and numerous exhibition spaces, the Heard had also just opened their mid-career retrospective on Native Alaskan and Tlingit-Unangax artist Nicholas Galanin. Galanin's mainly conceptual work discusses the misappropriation of American Indian aesthetics, colonialism, and issues of authority and agency. Through various mediums including installation, video and sculpture, Galanin provides provoking material that is rife with context and history. Forgotten stories of past transgressions and current horrors of modern society, Galanin utilizes associative imagery that is frequently seen, and commonly misrepresented, to set the platform for these dialogues.
Suspended from the high ceiling, porcelain arrows fly in an arc, casting shadows on the opposite wall. A familiar tool used by the American Indian, reimagined through material. In I Dreamt I Could Fly, Galanin uses porcelain covered in blue deltware patterns to symbolize the colonial restrictions placed on Indigenous cultures. Usually a weapon for survival, these fragile arrows would be useless in combat, shattering on contact. This metaphorical use of the arrow links to the dream of sovereignty and the institutional and historical restrictions that make up the inherent challenges of its success. A systemic problem that is shared by many cultures within the United States.
Galanin uses this element to reclaim many lost histories and aspects of his colonized culture. In the Imaginary Indian Series, Galanin utilizes several mass-produced Native Alaskan-looking objects made in Indonesia to discern past events through their association. As a part of this series, Imaginary Indian Totem, inhabits a corner of the gallery space that is covered in a vibrant, fruit wallpaper. This wallpaper is from 1866, produced by Britain's Morris & Co., which is then matched with a Indonesian-made totem. The wallpaper, and the totem, showcase the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples under the colonial rule and the resulting misappropriation of their traditions that we still frequently see today.
Endlessly steeped in thoughtful narrative, Galanin's pieces work to give new perspective to its viewers, altering the lens towards a more acknowledged future.
See more of this exhibition at the Heard Museum and more of Nicholas Galanin.
Title Image: Nicholas Galanin, Imaginary Indian Totem, 2016. Courtesy of Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.