The gray wolf is hard to look at. He is two wolves, actually, taxidermied into one seamless chimera and set on a white platform in the Frye Art Museum. His hindquarters are a pelt: lovely, soft, and useless. It is an awful sight to see him from behind, the front half of him, still upright, dragged back by the numb dead splay. Go around front. The front will be better. It is worse. He leans forward, reaching to take off, get free. His eyes are clear and his head is cocked hopefully, as if you are someone he has run across on this endless struggle and maybe you're the one, can you help?
He is a sculpture by a Sitka, Alaska, artist named Nicholas Galanin. Galanin is one of three young artists in the Frye's exhibition Your Feast Has Ended. The "you" in Your Feast is we, the overconsumptive heirs of slavers, corporate exploiters, and (un)settlers like Arthur Denny, the Irish-descended Midwesterner whose party arrived at Alki in 1851 to override thousands of years of history. The other two artists are Nep Sidhu, of Toronto, and Seattle's Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, both members of the Black Constellation, a group that also includes Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction. At a preview of the exhibition, Alley-Barnes said that if you feel accused while taking in the art, then, well, you have reason to, but his hope is that the art also provides points of embarkation to places other than the guilt-blame-shame game.
It does. To stand before Nep Sidhu's three large square paintings is to be enveloped and transported. Sidhu's tight concentric squares of invented script disappear toward a central vanishing point that never arrives, supplying the dizzying illusion of being headed down, or having returned from, a tunnel with no end or beginning. One of the texts adapts a cautionary folktale by Alley-Barnes (not included in the exhibition), another some lyrics by Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler. According to Sidhu, he and Butler both held their dying mothers in their arms.
The largest of Sidhu's artworks in Your Feast Has Ended is an imposing painted-textile altarpiece that transforms his mother into a towering goddess whose body is its own new world map. She's shaped like Vishnu on top, arms up, yet her torso calls to mind a mixing board in a contemporary recording studio (with a curly tail below). Across her vast surfaces are dense patterns of hand-sewn pearls and sequins, swatches of rich velvet, and stains made from paint soaked into the heart of the muslin. While surface adornment is a preoccupation, even in Sidhu's highly decorated contemporary tribal robes and cloaks, the surfaces are illustrations of heartfelt stories about pride, protection, and celebration, newly encoded collective myths.
Courtesy of the artist
Alley-Barnes, a father himself, is also a child of his ancestors. His father, painter and editorial cartoonist Curtis R. Barnes, towers over Your Feast as an elder; he has the solo show inhabiting the rest of the museum. As a kid, Alley-Barnes and his mother, Royal, would shop at the Goodwill off of Rainier Avenue, and Royal would rework what they found into new clothing and furnishings. Continuing the family tradition, Alley-Barnes arranged large configurations of Goodwill items into the shapes of big-game wall trophies. His impaled birds and beasts embedded with cultural meanings—a little like three-dimensional editorial cartoons—are formed from letterman jackets, Nikes, Japanese mail bags, Hudson Bay blankets, boxing gloves. One piece conjoins Macklemore and a swastika.
Critiquing local iconography while building his own, one of Alley-Barnes's sculptures includes an Ivar (of Ivar's) bobblehead and a black box "containing the soul of Charles Denny [Arthur's brother]" atop a pocket-sized book whose title claims it contains The Story of Extinct Civilizations. In two other galleries, Alley-Barnes uses a technique where he mummifies trash into papery white figures. Groups of them on facing pedestals are like performers and audience; then the gallery lights click off, and a black-and-white film plays on a wall. In it, a gorgeous, wealthy woman in a pristine modernist home awaits a single vial of fresh water, as a warning: Not only your feast, but your drink, has ended.
Stand at the entrance of Your Feast Has Ended and you're in the line of fire of a fleet of porcelain arrows. They're by Galanin, suspended from the ceiling and pointing at your head. They're aggressive but ultimately fragile. Galanin said they remind him of the feeling of flying in his dreams, then waking up to find he can't. The wolf reaches forward, is pulled back.
Collection of the Burke Museum, Seattle. Photo: Wayne Leidenfrost / Vancouver Sun
Those flying arrows also point to a far wall where there's an antenna, a radio on a shelf, and a cedar box full of wires. Galanin has hooked up a pirate radio station—93.7 on the dial. The broadcast is Tlingit language lessons, an older man teaching a younger woman.
Galanin, who is Tlingit, travels easily across the ancient and the current. He apprenticed young to a traditional carver and jeweler, got his fine art bachelor's degree in London, then earned his master's in indigenous visual arts in New Zealand. He makes political hiphop under the identity of Indian Nick and soft folk music as Silver Jackson, and created the record label Homeskillet. Your Feast Has Ended doesn't include music (though you can hear some on headphones in the gift shop), but it does include a wide array of wisely edgy stuff. Rape-whistle earrings shaped into lovebirds, for instance.
In a quiet, darkened corner of one gallery, Galanin's video How Bout Those Mariners (for John T. Williams) plays. It's a short, repeating loop of a drawn figure in vaguely traditional garb walking toward the camera in a continuous approach, holding what looks like a knife, faceless and advancing. For audio, Galanin used the actual dashboard recording from the afternoon of August 30, 2010, when a Seattle police officer stopped and shot to death the homeless Native carver John T. Williams for carrying—"brandishing," the officer later said—his carving knife. The figure in the video continues to walk forward. Williams is shot dead. A commentator comes on the police-car radio to talk about that night's game. "So," he calls, "how 'bout those Mariners!"