Step into the Frye Art Museum for Your Feast Has Ended and you’ll likely feel more than a twinge of guilt. The exhibit features work by Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes (Seattle), Nicholas Galanin (Alaska), and Nep Sidhu (Toronto) who have created works that prompt reflection on cultural power plays, and provide a lesson in how to turn historical hurts into contemporary triumphs.
A few feet into the entryway Galanin’s mass of porcelain arrows fly overhead spanning two separate galleries. Elevated from weaponry to the ranks of art, they don’t threaten to strike a physical target. Instead they hit their mark by showing how the facade of a cultural heritage is often adopted at the expense of the guts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Galanin’s floor-bound sculpture Inert in which a lone wolf resurrects itself from its trophy-kill skin. The back of the beast, ostensibly the past, lies dormant while the head and torso surge forth into the future. As Galanin explains “Mainstream society often looks at Indigenous or Native American art through a romantic lens, not allowing a culture, like my Tlingit community, room for creative sovereign growth.” Not only does Galanin’s wolf rise from his ashes, he looks pretty pissed off about being put there in the first pace.
Like Galanin, Alley-Barnes calls upon the power of skins and clothing to express identity, both individual and collective. His pelt series combines thrift store finds in the way of jackets, shoes, vintage fabrics and patches that pieced together form personalities from the artist’s world, as well as those from our collective consciousness. Wait! Wait! Don’t Shoot (An Incantation for Jazz and Trayvon) references Trayvon Martin—the 17-year-old African American teenager shot in a gated community of Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer who claimed that Martin looked “suspicious.”
Sidhu creates mandala-like wall-hung sculptures and wearables that go far beyond merely protecting their owners from the elements. Instead, his clothing and jewelry line, Paradise Sportif, protects and enhances modern day ceremony. “When understanding the power of our past messengers and healers,” writes Sidhu, “the garments that they wore played significance in their function as much as their understanding of nature rhythm, dance and medicine.” He incorporates ancient texts into pieces that function as talismans, prayers, portals into the spiritual realm, and weapons in their own right.
With all the jewelry, clothing, audio, video, pelts, and ephemera on view it’s hard to establish what is art and what is life—which is exactly the point. This is hardly work fit for the white cube, except that thankfully it finally is. Could life be stranger than art? Although the majority of works on view “contemporarize” traditional practice to make their point, one piece in the exhibit needs no embellishment at all: a tiny pair of handcuffs used to lead Native American Indian children away from their families. The Frye has been the gatekeeper of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century German art since 1952. The impressive gilt-framed collection remains on view at the back of the museum where viewers can get their gaze on ogling masterfully painted pastorals. Then they can stride into the gallery next door for a dose of reality and some serious attitude. Originally titled “Oh, Ye Parasites, Your Feast has Ended,” this exhibit doesn’t pull any punches, which is precisely what makes it such a knockout.
By Suzanne Beal