by Dawnell Smith
October smells bittersweet. The month of frost and chills mingles with the sweet aroma of decay and ghostly awakenings.
Fittingly, Out North hosts two art exhibits that cross paths this last week of October, each of them speaking to lost and found souls, to darkness and hope, in its own way. “This is Displacement,” a reflection on the relationship between land and identity by Native artists, closes on Sunday to make room for “Dia de Muertos,” with opens next Friday and runs through November 15.
“Displacement” includes poetry and painting, ink-work and sculpture, through materials as traditional as beads and fiber, and as fundamental as blood.
Emily Johnson, a co-curator of the show, used Yup’ik blood—her blood—smeared or dappled on new and recycled freezer paper. Eight of these blood stained canvases sit in frames filled slightly with sand from Mini sota (the Dakota word for Minnesota) and Alaxsxaq (the Aleut word that led to the Russian word for Alaska).
In some, the paper that looks worn and wrinkled with smudges of blood; in others, a smooth canvas holds a single, thick drop.
Here, she speaks to the distance and connection between where she lives and where she comes from.
Co-curator Carolyn Anderson painted a self-portrait with a woman in the Buddha pose with her body as the central image and a tree and its roots spreading down her torso and toward the bottom of the canvas. Around her, a traditional dwelling, skyscrapers, a road, a river, an oilrig or two.
Here, the conceits of development look small against the ancestry of a single human being. The piece has almost an eastern sensibility, the figure appearing almost godlike while the human creations look fickle and inconsequential.
On another wall, poetry by Jay Thomas Bad Heart Bull takes a much more personal approach to displacement. His handwriting falls down long, scroll-like spans of paper in narratives of loss and pride.
When he writes of where he’s from, he does not allude to a single place or even a memory, but rather to a sense of the way things should be. “It’s the soft graze of horsehair and wool blankets on your skin in the winter.”
A drawing by Star Wallowing Bull takes an entirely different approach by engaging and confusing the eye through a colored ink visage of “Modern Day Indian” in an industrial environment. The piece looks beautiful and skillfully drawn, yet disjointed from assumptions about indigenous culture as existing only in the past.
The show only has ten pieces, making it thin in volume despite the variety of media and themes. Seeing more work by each artist would certainly add to it. Also, one of the drawbacks to seeing an art show this late in its run is that sometimes things get ratty in the gallery. Last week, I couldn’t get the video piece to work, but there’s usually someone on hand to help out.
In about a week, altars celebrating the Day of the Dead will go up in the same space. “Dia de Muertos” involves a handful of artists and groups, including the always reliable Mariano Gonzales, Indra Arriaga and Angela Ramirez, along with Hospice of Anchorage, students from West High School and the Rodriguez-Zinn family.
The altars welcome the dead with food, colorful objects and fetishes from the realm of the living. There might be paintings and sweet breads, candles and skulls—definitely skulls, sometimes in bonnets and often surrounded photos, flowers and crosses.
The main event takes place starting at 3 p.m. Sunday, November 1, with dance, music and food starting at 5 p.m., but the show opens the previous Friday, October 30, with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m.
On Halloween, storytellers from Anchorage will scare teens and adults with stories of doom at 6 p.m. (Leave little ones at home.)
But festivity, not fright, is the main reason for celebrating this Mexican holiday. Whether contemporary or traditional, the elaborate altars of “Dia de Muertos” will certainly remember ancestors or honor the life of someone important.