Our country is increasingly becoming a place of hyphenated identities, in which we speak of ourselves in relation to the countries or continents our ancestors came from — African-American, Italian-American, Korean-American. This increased focus on cultural and ethnic identity is double-edged: the hyphen acts as both a bond, recognizing and respecting our individual cultural traditions, and a barrier, separating us into cultural neighborhoods, or even ghettos. The work of Nicholas Galanin seeks to both fuse and sunder this hyphen, with cultural juxtapositions that mine his own cultural identities, ancient and contemporary.
Galanin grew up in the small town of Sitka, along the coast of southeastern Alaska. Of Tlingit, Aleut and non-Native ancestry, he learned traditional art forms from his uncle and father. He crossed the globe to attend London Guildhall University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in jewelry design, then crossed it again for graduate school at Massey University in New Zealand, where he earned a graduate degree in Indigenous Visual Arts in 2004. During that time and since, his art practice has expanded to include the more cosmopolitan mediums of contemporary art — photography, installation, video and sound — while his concerns have remained rooted in cultural identity and authority.
In his video diptych Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan, now on exhibit at BYU’s Museum of Art, Galanin screens two related video works that shake and sift the norms of cultural identity. The videos play on a fairly simple conceit: the artist layers a video of a dance performance with an unrelated, though not uncongenial, soundtrack. In Part One, David “Elsewhere” Bernal, a Peruvian-American dancer, performs his trademark blend of “twisting” and “popping” — contemporary dance forms that might fall under the more generic rubric of breakdance — in a nondescript workspace, while the traditional Tlingit song Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan (“We will again open this container of wisdom that has been left in our care”) plays on the soundtrack. In Part Two, Native American dancer Dan Littlefield performs a traditional Raven Dance, set against the imposing backdrop of an Eagle and Raven wall screen carved by Galanin’s uncle, while a piece of heavy electronica plays on the soundtrack.
The mix of image and sound are not discordant, just not expected: in each work the soundtrack begins first, creating an expectation that is then undermined. After the initial surprise, however, visuals and sound seem to unite, or at least to approach each other: the “pops” or “hits” of Bernal occasionally sync with the beat of the traditional soundtrack; and the electronic music Galanin composed for Part Two accompanies Littlefield’s performance well, even though its sounds would be more at home in the video arcade than the forests of the Pacific Northwest. At first exposure, visuals and sound in these works would seem to stand on either side of a hyphen, but the cultural distinctions are soon blended into a unified whole, neither one nor the other. A hybrid.
Nicholas Galanin’s Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan is at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art through September 2015.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.