The letters are sealskin. The white shirt is the artists grandmothers.
The letters are sealskin. The white shirt is the artist's grandmother's. Images courtesy of the artist

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When Christine Babic was two years old, an oil tanker struck a reef in the waters just beyond her fishing village and spilled so much crude oil that you can still find it today in some places if you just dig up the top layer of earth. That was the Exxon Valdez.

Babic was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, on the land of her Chugach Suqpiaq ancestors. Her grandmother had been kidnapped from there by the U.S. government, thrown into boarding school, and threatened with punishment if she spoke her native language or practiced her own culture. That grandmother settled in Seattle, but her daughter, Babic’s mother, returned to Cordova to raise Babic—where in 1989 mass death visited the marine life, the local economy was instantly devastated, and two of Babic's grandparents died of cancer after cleaning up the oil spill.

In the midst of all this, Babic’s family were artists and craftspeople. She learned animal skin sewing and beading from her mother and her aunt, and devoted herself to traditional native dance. The family went every year to sell some of their art at a fair in Santa Fe, where the mostly white crowd bought their state-certified-authentic-native pieces. Alaska certifies “real” native art with a designation you have to apply for, called The Silver Hand.

The Silver Hand, the Exxon Valdez, the boarding school—they are all related, all aspects of what Babic files under “termination in disguise,” some more disguised than others. The corporate determination to ruin land and water at Standing Rock, North Dakota today—and to enlist the U.S. government in beating down indigenous tribespeople from all over—is just another iteration. Babic traveled to Standing Rock recently and wants to go back. She fears the worst. Knows the worst.

Christine Babic doing a performance in Georgetown in October.
"Genocide Rules Everything Around Me." Christine Babic doing a performance in Georgetown in October.

As an adult, Babic left Cordova to earn her degree at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, but she did not leave Cordova behind. She continues to return to Cordova, where she fishes, as does her family. Likewise, she studied contemporary art but did not leave her native training behind. She makes art out of a hard-won, canny capacity for divining, reinterpreting, and merging meanings and materials across antagonistic cultures. When you look at what she makes, look closely, and consider all the many possible contexts and histories.

A year ago, Babic moved to Seattle. Her her first solo show in this city opens December 1 at the Center for Contemporary Art in Pioneer Square. (She will give a talk December 3.)

The show is the culmination of a CoCA residency Babic did in Georgetown inside a shipping container, which turns out to be the perfect indoor/outdoor environment to work with animal hides and skins. The gallery show is titled When She Dies, You Too Will Die in reference to a prophecy about the relationship between a people and their land. It will include text-based works made from the skins and hides of seals, rabbits, and caribou; works that co-inhabit the dresses Babic wore as a young dancer, the American flags she draped herself in on her trip to Standing Rock, and pieces of her grandmother’s clothing.

Meet Christine Babic.