Shared North: An Arctic Identity reflected in art

On the 27th of January Alaska’s museum of Anchorage brought indigenous artists to the Northern Norway Art Museum in Tromsø to create a dialogue about what “An Arctic Identity” actually means. What do we know about northern art? What do we have in common? These and many other issues were discussed at the table during an event “Shared North”.

Text: Elias Bergsholm

Cold. Unsettled. Mountains. Snow. These are the very first words that comes to mind on hearing “North”. But here and now a group of Alaskan indigenous artists as well as other international guests, who are currently working with the Anchorage Museum have a say about the understanding of Arctic lifeways from a human and cultural perspective.

“What is the vision of the Arctic? Living in the Arctic makes you think differently. It makes you turn away from the crowds and realize that you’re not thinking black-and-white anymore. You’re thinking Arctic. ” –

That’s how Sonya Kelliher-Combs (Bachelor and Master of Fine Arts), Alaska Native contemporary artist, began her speech in the Northern Norway Art Museum. Raised in the Northwest Alaska, her paintings and sculptures reflect her struggle for self-definition and identity in the Alaskan context.

Sonya, what do you want people to notice, realize, and maybe understand in your works?

“All of us here represent the Voice of the Arctic, the voice of the North, which means we have to stand up and create a conversation about the North and its distinct environment, about its people and culture, about its places and the past. The vision of the Arctic should be shared.”

Do you see the art as the reflection of your lifeway? Where the inspiration comes from?

“Since we’re Alaska Native artists we do have a sense of place and origins in our works. Our art is collection of the past connected to the global Arctic. Where we live, the people around us have been through a lot of things and I think our art is a way of discussing the emergence of Alaska’s identity.”

During the discussion I realized how powerful art can be. The importance of the art should gather us together and give us an opportunity to speak our minds rather than separate them. Being able to share our identities, our differences and our approaches is crucial in raising the awareness.

Aaron Leggett is the Special Exhibits Curator of the Anchorage Museum who first learned of his ancestry in preschool. In the very beginning of this event he introduces himself on his native language “Dena’ina”. He explains what the meaning of this assembly is:

“Being an Arctic person is what distinguishes us. We know how to care for people around us. We understand man’s impact on the nature. Colonization of our habitat strongly reflects our art. I was raised at a time when there was almost no recognition of the original inhabitants of Cook Inlet. We build new traditions every day. I dedicated my life to raise the awareness of questioning where we came from and where we are going. I’ve brought us here to northern Norway to create the understanding between us. Nothing has ever been done with the Alaskan art of Natives and I think it is important to give a space to art. My grandmother instilled in me a sense of being proud of who I am and it is an important thing not to forget”.

Art has an important role to play. It creates dialogues, moves from black-and-white and raises awareness. Art vision of the Arctic is the voice of the North!