I'm standing at the Frye Art Museum, face-to-face with a black vinyl alien head that's affixed to the wall like a giant sticker, its interior filled in with words as unfamiliar to me as distant galaxies. "Áa yaa sh nalxán," reads the text. Overhead, an audio recording gives voice to the words, interspersed with cosmic synth twinkles. "Ax tuyadaa Áx xat tukwgadáa shakdéi."
This work is Heaven and Earth, a collaboration between artist Alison Marks and her husband, Paul, a Tlingit language teacher and culture keeper whose father is one of the endangered language's last fluent speakers. But this is only part of the work—the part that's on earth. The other part lives in outer space where, thanks to a free star-naming website, Marks is naming stars after entries from the Tlingit dictionary. "Symbolically, I am sending the language into space so that it may survive there if we don't save it on Earth," she says.
One Gray Hair is the first solo museum exhibition by Marks, a contemporary Tlingit artist known for using futuristic materials to create objects that highlight the tensions arising between tradition and innovation in the context of colonization. In some cases, Marks's use of technologically-inspired media and materials seems optimistic, as in Zenon, a traditional dance tunic rendered in stunning holographic leather, and Space Bear, an acrylic painting that commemorates a Tlingit bear mask taken into space by an astronaut, where it orbited Earth for four months. In other instances, however, the pairing feels more ominous, such as The Messenger, a painting of a QR code in the shape of an owl, or Mask, an alderwood carving covered with plastic beads and faux fur that the artist identifies with "the manic and alluring veneer of Western culture."
Many of the works reflect the fact that Marks is an accomplished wood carver. In 2015, she used a James W. Ray Venture Project Award to learn to carve a 10-foot totem pole in honor of her grandfather. One series of digital prints depicts women painted by Johannes Vermeer, Leonardo da Vinci, and German artist Gabriel Von Max, replacing the faces with carved masks that draw attention to the erasure of indigenous objects from the art history canon. A similarly pointed humor is also evident in Cultural Tourism, a garish inflatable air dancer sculpture of a totem pole that evokes the pain of having one's ancient traditions reduced to mass-produced tchotchkes.
The exhibition's title refers to the artist's experience of finding her first gray hair. In Tlingit culture, gray hair is highly prized, but according to Western beauty standards, it's cause for panic. "At the ripe old age of 25, I found myself considering how my perception of beauty has been influenced," she says. "During pre-contact times, the women in my clan wore animal-skin dresses that covered them from their necks to their ankles. Western culture has colonized our views on what is acceptable."