This is My Home: "Kiks.ádi Land"
“Wáa sá iyatee?” is written on an index card stapled to the front door of a house on a hill in Sitka. In Tlingit, it means, “How are you?” The house belongs to Nicholas Galanin, a highly accomplished multidisciplinary artist of Tlingit/Unangax̂ descent. His medium is “pretty much anything,” he says — sculpture, video, textile and works on paper. His practice builds on his traditional skills and celebrates creative autonomy. His art explores the complexities of contemporary indigenous identity.
Six kids, three dogs, two artists and a lot of friends fill this home. Eight coat hooks inside the front door are labeled in neat handwriting: NG (Nicholas Galanin), MJ (Merritt Johnson, Galanin’s wife, a mixed indigenous artist of Mohawk, Blackfoot and North American settler descent), Owen, Nova, Scarlet, Elliott and Ositsya — their “Brady Bunch” brood. The youngest, At Tugáni, is just learning how to walk.
On the kitchen windowsill, Galanin’s awards from the Eiteljorg Museum and Rasmuson Foundation mix with kids’ projects and clay sculptures. School photos cover the fridge. The fridge door is labeled, “Tóo at dult’ix’ýi át,” which, in Tlingit, means “the thing in which things are chilled.” The freezer is stocked with salmon, halibut and lingcod that the family caught in Sitka Bay. One prehistoric-looking lingcod was so big they named it “Lingzilla.”
Galanin’s Tlingit name is Yéil Ya-tseen, “Raven Be Alive,” and he records music as “Indian Agent” or “Silver Jackson.” His clan is Kiks.ádi. His work — objects, music, moving image, performance art, installation, fashion and jewelry — can be found in major museums and in many of the art books that line one entire wall in his home. “From here to here,” he says with a sweeping gesture. His creative success could allow him to live anywhere, but he says, “Why would I live anywhere else?” Sitka is Galanin’s paradise. “It has everything,” he says. “It’s quiet. It’s a nice place to work. I can get my fix of cities easily through my travels.”
Galanin travels and shows his work a lot. In 2017, he worked with artist Oscar Tuazon to produce “Indian Water–The Native American Pavilion,” an independent project for the 57th Venice Biennale. Two of his pieces were prominently featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial in New York. One, “White Noise American Prayer Rug,” was a reference to indigenous genocide and cultural amnesia. Last September, he had solo shows in Minneapolis, Montreal and Toronto. On Twitter, @silverjackson wrote, “The 20-year-old me would not have guessed that my work would bring me across the world.”
After his parents separated, the young Galanin moved around a lot with his mother. By the time he graduated from high school, he had attended 13 schools in Arizona, Seattle and Juneau. Galanin’s three oldest children have lived in Sitka all their lives. The oldest is in eighth grade. They’ve had the same friends since preschool.
When Galanin was with his father, they spent time making music and art. His dad, Dave Galanin, is a master carver and gave him his first guitar, at age 12. Jerrod, Galanin’s older brother, also lives in Sitka and hand-engraves metal jewelry. All three received Rasmuson Foundation awards in 2014, the first time individuals from the same family were given awards in the same year.
Artistry runs deep in this family. Galanin’s great-grandfather, George (Lķeinaa) Benson, was a master carver. In the 1940s, he designed the Baranof totem pole that stands in Sitka’s town square. He carved four of the totem poles in Sitka National Historic Park. Later, Benson demonstrated carving for tourists. In his “White Carver” installation, Galanin references this practice, but turns it upside down. A white man is put on display and made to carve untraditional wooden trinkets. “Who wants to be put in a box? Culture cannot be contained,” Galanin says.
Galanin’s uncle, Will Burkhart, is another master carver. Galanin apprenticed with him on the Eagle-Raven screen commissioned for Sitka’s community house. The massive screen serves as a backdrop for Galanin’s 2006 video, Tsu Héidei Shugaxtutaan — “We will again open this container of wisdom that has been left in our care.” A dancer in full regalia performs a traditional dance to an electronic groove composition.
Galanin’s music studio is in what would be the master bedroom in any ordinary house. Guitars hang from the walls. Electronic gear fills one side of the room. A big bed is tucked under wraparound windows. A lush sea otter blanket is thrown over the bed. Galanin hunted the otters and made the throw.
As a way to bring artists like Macklemore and Kingdom Crumbs to Sitka, Galanin co-founded and curated a music festival called Homeskillet. The lineup included local talent, too, including Galanin’s dad, who plays the blues and whose stage name is “Strummin’ Dog.” The festival had to run its course — it took too much of his time — but Galanin still produces short-run vinyl records under the Homeskillet label with artists he admires, like OCNotes and Stephen Qacung Blanchett.
Galanin has a lot of artist friends from all over the world. Their work hangs on his walls. James Luna’s “Half Indian/Half Mexican” triptych holds a special place of honor. “Dr. Luna was the first Native I’d seen in that performance space,” says Galanin. “He and I were in a show at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York with the big guns.”
When he was about 18, he decided to devote himself full time to art, thinking otherwise it wasn’t going to happen. In London, Galanin studied jewelry design and silversmithing at Guildhall University, where, he says, “You have to hang your culture at the door.” At Massey University in New Zealand, where his dad was living, Galanin got his Master of Fine Arts in indigenous visual arts. He was blown away by the Maori culture. “They were badass,” he says. “Their experiences with colonization were similar to ours. All that … fueled me. I felt they wanted me to succeed.”
Galanin was one of eight artists who requested that their work be removed from the 2019 Whitney Biennial in protest of Warren Kanders’ role with the museum. Kanders, a defense contractor, owns a company that sells riot gear and tear gas that was used against protesters at Standing Rock and on migrants on the border, including children. At the biennial opening, At Tugáni, Galanin’s youngest, wore a white onesie on which was written “TEARGAS” with a slash through it. In Tlingit, At Tugáni means “something that burns inside.” Kanders resigned from his post at the Whitney, and the artists’ work stayed in the show.
In early 2020, Galanin had his first solo show in New York at the Peter Blum Gallery. He’s been selected to participate in the 2020 Sydney Biennale. It happens to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s first voyage to Australia and will feature many First Nations artists who will offer a counter narrative to that history.
What else is next? “I’m most comfortable not knowing what form my next idea will take. Through creating,” Galanin says, “I assert my freedom.”
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