At the age of 32, Nicholas Galanin is a battered old soldier in the customary and contemporary art worlds. Apprenticed as a jeweller and carver in his early teens, he was literally born into his career as an artisan. But a look at his later conceptual work, beginning in 2002, reveals a much more intricate creative emergence. Now that Galanin appears to be migrating into the musical realm with his touring freak-folk act Silver Jackson, it’s time to stand back and take a look at the past decade’s worth of his visual art.
Nicholas Galanin, Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter
Call them his Naughty Years.
All of Galanin’s works are what-you-see-is-what-you-get straightforward, from the laser etched face-in-book pages of series like What Have We Become?, to chainsaw-carved cedar of The Raven and the First Immigrant. Some are provocative conceptual pieces like The Curtis Legacy or 2012’s visceral video, Is This Your Medicine? Man, lining his resume like hunks of broken glass. Regardless of the perpetually shifting medium, his works are laden with honest, significant, commentary on human identity struggles and persistent cultural fragmentation. This is exemplified in works like the seizure-inducing brilliance of 2006’s Who We Are and the kitschy imagery of Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter. While the former displays a succession of ceremonial masks blurring into one amidst a lighting fast montage, and the latter a humorous photographic mash-up of Princess Leia (from the original Star Wars movie) and a woman in tribal garb, the result is always the same— a direct shot to one’s cultural consciousness.
At times, Galanin’s work also offers the sensation of watching the artist’s glacial ego grind against the foundation of a hyper-self-conscious art establishment. Take his more recent works, the ultra-minimal Inert, which consists of a taxidermy wolf/skin rug, or Galanin’s monolithic branding experiment, the Indian Petroglyph series. Both are fierce jabs at the very patrons of the works themselves. But none of this friction ever slowed either Galanin or the establishment from moving forward on their respective trajectories.
...Look at how, politically, the idea of how Native American art always stops at the border of Mexico when it’s curated in the US and Canada. I say that’s a political border that was put up, even though the people of Mexico are indigenous, or had occupied or even lived in the land that is now the US...
In viewing Galanin’s artistic practice from the vantage point of the past decade, I would posit that his fertile and prolific career is resultant of the fact that he’s treated each artistic outing more as a risky global crossing, rather than another gig. His body of work represents a journey away from the rote chains of tradition (a word he consistently eschews in interviews), towards the openness of cross-disciplinary performance; and he appears to have had a lot of fun along the way. For this, I was interested in speaking with him in the following phone interview conducted in April of 2012:
Decoy Magazine: Can you start off by telling me about a real-life experience that gave rise to one of your pieces?
Nicholas Galanin: It’s not necessarily one work, but it was the start of taking my creativity further than what I was accustomed to. I was actually in Vancouver for one of my first exhibitions. It was a group show called ‘Totems and Turquoise’. The ball started rolling for me in the art world from that exhibition. They were photographing the artists’ work and interviewing us for some video documentary that would be exhibited with the show. I was surrounded with a lot of the idols I grew up with, really appreciating their work. So it was a special time for me. But I was sitting down for an interview and I was discussing a piece of work. It was a copper mask that I created for the exhibition and the copper mask was a customary Northwest object I suppose, I noticed the interviewer was really prodding certain types of questions out of me like ‘tell me about the spirituality of this piece…” and blah blah blah. And I just kind of realized that there was nothing from my experiences injected into that work. I felt like it was more of a study of my culture’s history and the aesthetic process of creating that type of work as opposed to anything that was relevant to my experiences. That’s a pretty common thing in that side of the art world; the conservatism and romanticism that follows a lot of indigenous culture. About that time, I felt like I needed to be honest with my experiences and my voice and my work.
What year was it?
That was probably 2002…
You’ve stated that you ‘intend for your work to contribute to global, contemporary cultural development’…
Well, not development in a commercial sense, but ‘betterment’ I suppose. That development could take form in empowering a culture’s voice or perspective. There’s been a lot of, especially in cultures that have been colonized, a lot of reaction… we tend to be in a reactionary state. I think it’s important that we empower ourselves, and that’s part of liberating our culture through creativity.
Just to clarify, what culture do you speak of?
Well, I’m working from my culture… I’ll always work from my culture, but it could translate to any culture… there’s a lot of similarities with cultures across the globe. I spent three years in New Zealand and, with the Mauri cultures, I saw a lot of parallels with them having to work today with a culture that’s gone through a lot of change in recent times, through colonization and loss of language, land issues. I think that’s pretty common everywhere.
I saw a statement you made where you spoke of, ‘…culture being arrested by colonialism and kitsched by tourism.’ Could you give me some examples?
In Alaska there’s a huge market for selling iconic images of the culture. Totemic art is one really powerful image of my culture, and that becomes a product for the tourists who visit Alaska. I think it’s really common, and it bleeds all the way into the culture, it bleeds into the work that we create culturally. The ‘economy of culture’ is what that comment is speaking about.
Are you fighting for or against something with your practice?
I’m not fighting anything. I’m observing everything that’s happening. I don’t really ever present a solution with my work. But there’s a lot of things people ignore or choose not to acknowledge.
The What Have We Become series asked: ‘where are we getting our information from?’ That series was about how we are digesting a lot of these anthropological and historical books on the culture. And we didn’t really look at them, and I’ve seen it happen, the culture starts to become this perspective and a lot of these books were written from a perspective that was from somebody who has never visited the coast or they are not from this culture.
That seemed to really affect you, I saw in interviews; that books about your culture or other cultures were written by people with no specific background.
That was a huge part of the beginning of creativity in my life. I started off doing a lot of customary work. That was where I really threw myself into the arts and was learning about my culture’s history through its art. I apprenticed with my uncle who was a traditional Tlingit artist, my father, and I was surrounded and involved in this world and then I realized, a little further in, I was like, ‘Wow, this is not… where am I getting my information from?’ It seemed like there was a lot more that needed to be expanded on in my eyes, and the next step was the concept side of the work, as opposed to just saying ‘This is how it is. This is how we do things.’ But I’m kind of tired of a lot of this conversation too, right now. I think there’s still a lot of wonderful things to explore.
What conversation intrigues you?
I love music right now. That’s what I’ve been doing mainly, and I think I love the idea of music because I’m not immediately identified or confined by somebody else’s idea of my ethnicity.
I looked into some of your musical personas. I listened to a track by Silver Jackson, and I listened to a track by Indian Nick, and I noticed that one seemed more peaceful. Silver Jackson kind of reminded me of M. Ward or…
Yeah, a lot of that project is emotionally based. It comes from experience, the emotional side of humanity, or my emotional experiences. The hip-hop was just fun and it was more politically based…
Yeah, it seemed angrier.
That’s kind of an old project. It’s just more content based. I’m working on two new albums now, one with Silver Jackson and an Indian Nick one, but it’s not, it’s a lot looser, and it has no topics. I’m just trying to make music with it.
Yeah, no agenda. Just seeing what comes out…
That reminds me in one of your statements you talked about, ‘A boundless creative path of concept-based motion….
Which I think is a really interesting concept, in any culture, it’s fascinating anywhere. You seem to take pleasure in subverting people’s preconceived notions, of ‘nativeness’ or what have you. Are you consciously or subconsciously playing the role of ‘trickster’?
I think a lot of the work had entertained that idea for some time. Not always. But sometimes it had. I never set out to do that as a sole concept of the piece, but I think it just worked its way into the dialogue. And there are so many layers to a lot of the series of works that I’ve created that it’s bound to happen.
What is your relationship with technology?
Technology? I think I’m pretty connected. I don’t know if technology has ever driven the concept immediately, but I use technology.” I don’t think about it as, “I think I’m going to use technology today.”
I use whatever’s around me. I did a petroglyph series and I used hand chisels. But I would have used pneumatics if I had that available. It would have saved me hours of work.
Do you have a digital persona?
What do you mean?
Musically, you have a couple of personas, then you have Nicholas the artist, you probably have Nicholas the member of a family in Sitka, do you have another persona in the digital realm… I don’t know, maybe on Second Life or anywhere?
No. Not really. Usually I just go as Silver Jackson in the digital world, which is my musical alias. That’s where you’ll find me on Facebook and Twitter, but they’re all starting to bleed into each other, in a good way, a natural way.
Coming from a place of your culture, I hope I’m not romanticizing it, but you seem to be leaping freely between worlds. Is there any magic in this? Is there any aspect of shamanism?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t know. I’d like to say ‘I’m a magician.”
If you are in Sitka and Berlin, and the Gwangju Biennale (S. Korea), those are worlds apart. For you to be able to leap between them and speak to people, for me that is a kind of crossing between worlds.
It is, in a certain sense. But it’s not for me to decide. I just continue on with what I do.
Do you have a connection to the supernatural world?
I have a connection to the land. I have a big connection to the land here in Alaska.
What’s your connection to the land there?
I love it here. This is home for me. Subsisting off the land, going out, hunting and gathering, picking fish with my brother.
What do you hunt?
Deer. Primarily deer. My brother and I are always going out, getting halibut and salmon. It’s just a really good way to be and live.
It’s great to have a fully stocked freezer.
It is. It’s really important.
You remarked on your own Indian Petroglyph Series, ‘It’s a fun, time traveling piece that will confuse its audience 2000 years from now. What did you imagine happening 2000 years in the future?
Even if it’s not 2000, that was just a big number to throw out there. I have no idea. Who could have predicted what this place would be like now, say two thousand years ago? We’re in the same thing, just the idea of realizing we have a larger audience for what we do and what we create. We have an audience that most people don’t consider for some time. I really like that idea. I think it touches more on the fact that humanity tends to draw social and political borders around the land, for example. Look at how boundaries and borders on land change throughout time. Look at how, politically, the idea of how Native American art always stops at the border of Mexico when it’s curated in the US and Canada. I say that’s a political border that was put up, even though the people of Mexico are indigenous, or had occupied or even lived in the land that is now the US. So this petroglyph series escapes that, over time, potentially. It even loses its context. I could create something that we’re all very familiar with right now, like an icon or a logo of some sort and give it enough time, it becomes an indigenous symbol to the archeologist who’s looking at it, even if it’s a Coca-Cola bottle, a Pepsi or Nike Swoosh or whatever you want to call it, but that was clearly not in our time here… Makes you wonder how we define culture, and how we define our idea of ourselves now.
Have you heard of a book called Atomik Aztex (Sesshu Foster, pub. City Lights Books, 2005)?
No I haven’t.
It’s a novel. It’s about a world where the Aztecs survived into the atomic age, and actually controlled North America and what that would be like.
A pretty interesting read. Kind of the opposite of what you’re talking about.
Yeah it is. There’s a bit of contrast in that.
You often engage in a process of conjoining cultural icons.
Some pieces have, it depends. Like Inert, the wolf piece, is not really based on taking any cultural iconography from any culture.
What I got from that was that it was part rug and part living beast.
I guess it’s a containment of culture, that trying to contain something that is living.
Nicholas Galanin, Inert, 2009. Wolf, felt. 6′ x 4′ x 2.5′.
Is your strategy hybrid, mashup or shapeshifting?
I would hate to say that it was… I would say shapeshifting more than hybrid-mashup. But I don’t have a strategy.
Maybe that’s the wrong word for it…
Shapeshifting is the ability to continually change and morph into different areas of society. A lot of creative work allows me to do that.
Did you have to struggle to transition from customary arts to contemporary?
No, not really a struggle at all, I think it was just a… everything is a challenge. You’re always taking risks, whatever you’re doing… and it’s a lot of work. I don’t know if struggle is the right word… it is constant focus. I’m still in that transition, it feels like it.
What direction are you going in?
I’m just going. I have my eyes set on a certain direction, and I kind of move everything at the same time.
Have you participated in non-indigenous art shows?
Yeah, I have.
How’d you feel there, out of place or comfortable?
It’s fine. All of it is fine. No matter what kind of show, I always feel that there’s some other agenda shaping that show. I don’t put more importance on one or the other. I do feel like I’ve been curated into a lot of recent shows, and I know a lot of artists that are in the same scene that feel the same way, where it’s discussing an old dialogue that’s kind of tiresome. It’s so tiresome that I’ve gotta… I don’t know… I just want to change the conversation sometimes, and the only way to do so is through work.
I’m really fascinated by the idea of these artists who are all in this show, and they’re doing it to work, to do work, to further the conversation, but they’re stuck, they’re laden by this old tired conversation…
There have been artists that have putting work on that conversation for forty years now. Everything in society tends to move a lot slower.
And so what I’m digging at here, what I want to ferret out is: what is the new conversation? I know your work says it for you, but if we can even attempt to spell it out in an interview… what is that conversation that’s coming?
The new conversation?
Yeah, what do artists… what are they getting at?
I think part of the new conversation is not having to be solely tied by ethnicity or geography as an artist, and an artist can choose to partake in the dialogue of their community, but it’s not going to define an artist. It doesn’t have to define their work. That conversation can be anything. It could be based on anything. The way it goes… information is so accessible right now. People are traveling.
Is it absolute relativism?
I don’t know what you’d call it. We all have our role and our foot in the door of humanity, and our impact on this society that we live in today on a global perspective. You can spend your energy and time talking about anything. You can talk about the war. You can talk about the government in the US. Doing something or not doing something, it’s endless, I think.
Are you a central voice of your generation?
I like to think, and I had a friend tell me this actually, I like to think of being more of a catalyst towards things, like a catalyst of conversations… of anything, really.
Is there a weight to that responsibility?
I don’t feel a weight from it. I think I would feel the weight if I wasn’t doing this sort of work. It is liberating for me to create… I have to create.
How much does your sense of humour play into your practice?
There are definitely some humorous pieces. Peter Morin, who’s based in the Vancouver area, is curating a show at the Bill Reid gallery coming up in May, I believe. It’s going to be a show that is based around humour. He’s trying to get… I have a welcome mat that’s made out of polar bear. I think that’s what he’s going to use. It’s an ironic piece. It depends on people’s reception to the work. Some people see a lot of humour in a lot of the work. It depends on where they’re coming from and if they understand some of the commentary on indigenousness and society, the relationship between the two.
How about the Curtis Legacy?
The Curtis Legacy… it’s kind of an intense series, I think. It’s in your face. It’s like … to me that series is a possible projection of where the culture’s going, based on the idea of romanticism and painting an image of the perfect Indian. So, in that series, the model’s non-native and the artwork’s non-native… but it represents… people think that the masks are indigenous or Indian-made. So we get rid of the Indian and we keep the things we want from them.
We’re talking about the pornographic photos with another face over it, right?
Yeah. It’s taking what you want and getting rid of all the other aspects.
Were people offended by that?
Some people are offended by it. I got some nasty emails from some women artists. The work is about objectification
and I think it would have been harder if I’d decided to use a male body, because the male form isn’t really objectified by society.
It was one of those things that could be humorous… depends on how you take it. It was either humorous or completely offensive. I found it humorous when I saw it, but some people found it very offensive.
I felt like it was a risk to do that series. I felt like it was a risk to put something out there that sits on that boundary. I feel like every work, if I don’t feel like I’m taking a risk on it, then I don’t know if the work is worth creating.
Nicholas Galanin. From the Series, The Curtis Legacy.
So, part of your artist’s intuition is in the risk-taking.
I think there’s a lot of contribution that happens when you are taking risks.
What about in life?
Yeah, life as well.
Do you take risks in life?
I’m not jumping off of a bridge with a cord attached to my feet, but… I think it’s part of that. I think it’s the same thing really.
So you would equate bungee jumping with making dangerous art?
No, I think that taking a risk in creating art is a risk in life.
Could you create a piece that would destroy your career?
Probably. (laughs) Yeah, I could create a piece that would… I did that book series and I cut out of the Bible for ‘The Good Book’. I could probably use another religion and it would endanger my life, I’m sure. But I’m not setting out to do work like that for the sake of… being radical for the sake of being radical. I don’t think that’s necessary.
What is your relationship to the dancers in your videos? Do you dance?
I don’t dance. The only opportunity I felt like I had to dance was for tourists, and I didn’t really want to do that. Dance is important. I don’t think I have to dance to take part in the culture. I don’t dance. I don’t sing the songs. It’s one other aspect of the culture. So that piece is We Will Again Open this Container of Wisdom That’s Been Left in Our Care. To me the container is all aspects of the culture… the dance, the language, the visual art, everything.
I just meant do you dance when you go out to a bar or to a party?
I’m not a huge dancer, but if the music’s right, you might catch me out on the dance floor.
It’s hard sometimes. It’s hard for me too.
I don’t force myself to dance.
No, there’s nothing worse than dancing to music you don’t like.
I’d rather sing.
What has been the response to your work by your elders?
The work’s so varied so the responses will always be varied.
Have you ever had a strong response?
Yeah, not always right to my face, I tend to hear about it through other ways. I think that one great thing about being able to continue a dialogue with both generations is that I do have a strong foundation in the customary arts and I continue to nurture that side of my work. And I’ve addressed it in new work before too where I’ve made it a piece where I realized that elders can’t see themselves in that work, so I could fill in the grey areas. An example of that in the book series was that I chose to actively create work that was separated from… I was free of medium… like a common medium that you’d see around the area, red cedar or whatever, I was free of the form, Northwest Coast art, which was foundation of my art, my career, is a very strong, powerful visual language, it’s iconic, the forms and the sculpture, so I’ve created work that was able to allow an audience from any nation or background to relate to it. They can take that work and see themselves in it, I suppose. Yeah, but the problem with that is the elders, how are they going to take it, so we extended it to those grey areas and did Northwest Coast forms with the same concept and idea.
Do you find that some of the major museums are demanding a kind of formula for art?
Whether it’s art or music or anything. There is a certain aesthetic and a certain demand and I think that’s just the nature of the business.
Do you try to meet that?
I don’t ever try to meet… I don’t ever set out to create to fill their void, their spot on the shelf.
What creates that formulaic demand?
The conversation is probably one aspect of it as well as the academic conversation surrounding it. The curators, and the concept the curators try to address, that might be part of it as well. I don’t understand the art world very well.
That speaks to your credit. Do you know any contemporary indigenous artists who don’t make work about their indigenous identity?
Yeah, there’s probably a ton of artists who are indigenous that… you can think of anybody that just makes work… Anthony Kiedis is indigenous and he’s the singer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Where do you stop the boundary… why does there have to be that boundary anyway?
There doesn’t. Speaking of boundaries, what are your parameters as an artist, if any?
I’m sure I have parameters, but defining them is really difficult. Just because I’m exploring all of this still, you know?
I don’t know what’s next. New work, new ideas. I’ve got some shows coming up. New music. I’m really excited by the process of making music. I just lock myself into the studio… I’ve got a studio here at home. It consumes a lot of me, but I really enjoy it.
If could tour with anybody, who would you tour with?
I got asked to go on tour with Alida Kinny Starr, she’s a Canadian musician. That’ll be in October. I think her and I are a really good fit. We were in Vancouver recently, collaborating on a music project for a tv show that’s going to air some time, and that was awesome. So I think that’s a good start.
Silver Jackson aka Nicholas Galanin
So upcoming is music and more exhibitions. It sounds like you’ve got something going on at the Bill Reid Gallery.
Yeah, I’ve got a few shows. There’s a group show at the Grunt, as well. I think at the National Gallery sometime in the next year or two. There’s a lot of upcoming shows. Just creating new ideas that hopefully change the conversation a little more. I feel like a lot of the work I’ve made in the last five or six years has finally gotten circulated through a lot of the scenes. It’s a tired conversation for me I guess.
Who is thrilling you right now?
There’s so much amazing music coming out of Seattle. I do the curating of Home Skillet Fest and I pull from a lot of acts out of Seattle. Recent years, Shabazz Palaces music is phenomenal to me. A lot of music influences my visual art. Another hip-hop group out of Seattle, Kingdom Crumbs, their album’s not out yet, but they’re coming up to this year’s festival. A phenomenal group of artists. Ocnotes, he’s working on my next Silver Jackson album with me, his music is amazing! In the visual art world… I’m inspired by a ton of artists. Sonny Assu. Rebecca Belmore, I like a lot of the work she’s creating. Kent Monkman’s doing some really great work too… too many artists to list.
Tell me a little about your life’s journey.
I’m thirty-two. My childhood was moving around a ton with three brothers. We moved all over. I went to thirteen different schools, from kindergarten to twelfth grade. That probably influenced a lot; constantly being surrounded by new things and new people. My brothers and I read books because of that as well. Apparently I make friends really easily. I never thought about it that way, but I was talking with a friend about this idea of moving all the time and maybe it’s because of that. My parents divorced really early. My mother, we were pretty poor growing up and I never really got involved in art properly until I was a teen; art and music. I guess when I was fourteen I started taking interest in what my father did, with his jewelry and his tools. I never really pursued creativity until I was eighteen. I had a job. It was my last real job.
Your last real job?
The last ‘Fuck, I‘ve gotta get up and work’ kind of job. I was working for the Parks Service and this Russian Bishop’s House and I’d greet the visitors, and it was really slow and I used to draw. I was starting my apprenticeships at the time, I was eager to create. And I got in trouble for drawing. They said I could read books on Russian History but could not draw during quiet times… fuuuuck. I quit and never looked back.
Are you a local celebrity in Sitka?
A local celebrity, I don’t know…
You have a record label. You put on a music festival…
I do a lot for the arts community. It was nice, I just got an award for Artist of the Year from the Greater Sitka Council for the Arts for founding the festival, and I have a gallery here. Doing some work in the schools, with the arts. It’s good to have that recognition locally. The community is great to be involved in, but for a long time I felt like I didn’t have… there’s only so much opportunity in this community. It felt like I was traveling and doing more outside of this community, sharing my work everywhere else but this community for a long time. I don’t think they’ve seen a lot of work that I do, unless they’re following me and looking online.
How do you experience your creative ideas? How do they manifest in your mind?
It could come from anywhere. It could be, the way that somebody’s speaking to someone else in public. It could be running. That’s where I get a lot of my creative confidence. Trying to fully understand that conversation that is about to happen. For example, Inert, that wolf piece was something that I had wanted to work on and make for a long time, I wasn’t sure if I was going to take the risk to buy the materials because they’re expensive. I remember, I was running the next day and my mind was going on all this stuff, and finally I was like, ‘fuck it, make the piece.’ I think those risks are necessary sometime. You create something and the beauty of it is that you don’t know how or where it will go or be received, and being okay with that. You’re not in control of that side of the work. I think it’s a really exciting aspect too. You can’t fail at making art. The worst thing that can happen is that somebody will walk by it and forget it… that’s not too bad.
Do you ever have visions or epiphanies?
Yeah, my first epiphany, is probably still my most… my only major epiphany that I’ve ever truly had… I was four years old here in Sitka, I remember I was looking up at the stars and I was looking at the black space in between the stars and I felt this… I felt tiny… and then I started to wonder where I was before I was born, I started to wonder where I’ll go when I die. I think it just gave me… that feeling was … gave me a great feeling of gratitude being here now in this short time we have.
Do you feel personally or professionally limited by cultural expectations?
I’m sure there are a lot of limitations for sure. But that’s part of it. There’ll always be expectations. There’ll always be limitations on anything you do when you start to involve community. Yeah, I would say I felt that a lot earlier when I was working more closely with something more localized like cultural art around this area, and the conversation that was happening, the general conversation.
What did you mean when you included ‘fuck the police,’ in the end of your statement in the E-Junkies interview?
It was an odd interview. I just kind of threw a wild card out there.
Yeah, it was funny, it was kind of non-sequitur.
I was just seeing how on-board they were with this interview, and what it was all about. They printed it. I was doing a ton of interviews at the time and they all started to feel the same.
Do you believe in a soul?
I would definitely say so, yeah. We carry thing and leave things behind, and that includes by people of the past, even though our bodies aren’t here. The work we do and what we create, and how we influence other people. I think that’s all part of it too.
If we could suddenly see your soul, what would it look like?
I would say it would be bright. It would be hard to see. You couldn’t really stare at it. I feel like that sometimes. Not every day.